employee doesn’t take the hint that she’s interrupting me, read receipts, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Employee doesn’t take the hint that she’s interrupting me

I’m a senior-level employee at a small company that is generally pretty casual, collegial, and “open-door.” An employee on my team (not a direct report, but I review a lot of her work and am senior to her) who seems to generally lack a lot of common sense about social/professional norms has a tendency to walk right into my office when I’m working and begin a longwinded question without waiting for me to acknowledge her, make eye contact, or otherwise indicate that I’m available in any way.

I’m trying to be available to answer questions because she’s having a lot of performance issues and has tried to blame me for not “helping her” enough, but the constant interruption is driving me crazy. I’ve tried putting on a show of not looking up from my computer until she’s a few sentences in and acting bewildered and confused and saying she needs to start over because I was focusing on my work, but this doesn’t seem to faze her at all. I’ve tried wearing headphones and pretending I don’t notice that she’s there (same result) and I’ve tried setting daily meetings with her and encouraging her to bring all of her questions / items for review then, but that doesn’t seem to discourage her from coming in 5-10 times per day with one off questions.

You’ve tried hints that a lot of people would have picked up on — but when someone doesn’t pick up on hints, you’ve got to be more direct.

Try saying this: “I’m often focused on something else when you stop by my office, and it can be tricky to stop without warning when you appear! I’m happy to help you, but when you pop over, would you wait for me to reach a stopping point before you launch in? That’ll let me finish the thought I’m in the middle of without losing it.”

Or, depending on exactly what you’d like her to do, you could say, “It’s often tough for me to stop right in the middle of something with no warning. Would you IM me before you come by and I’ll let you know when I’m at a good breaking point?” Or even, “I want to make sure you get all the answers from me that you need, but it’s tough for me to do it in multiple conversations throughout the day because it often breaks my focus. Let’s set up a standing meeting every day at 2 pm and have you save up everything you need for then.” (If necessary for your office culture, you could add, “Of course, if you occasionally have something that can’t wait, that’s fine — but I’d like to funnel most of it into those standing meetings.”)

2. Boss’s boss wants read receipts on everything

I know you’ve mentioned read receipts are annoying and we don’t need to play along, but what if our grandboss is requesting them? He’s new so I’m not sure if this is a first few months on the job thing or if it will be ongoing. Should we play along due to his level in the company and hope he will stop once so many receipts are received?

Some email programs let you set your preferences to never send read receipts, and in theory that’s an option — so that it doesn’t look like you’re specifically denying his read receipts but just happen to have your computer set that way. (But you kind of lose the plausible deniability on that if you’ve already been sending them and then make the change.) As a general rule, though, it’s not a great idea to pointedly refuse something your boss’s boss is requesting unless it’s a lot more egregious than this.

3. Can I withhold my references until I get more information from the hiring manager?

I have a question whose answer I am not finding in your archives. I have been interviewing for a position at a large nonprofit. I have had two interviews thus far, both in-person with six people present. The supervisor of this position was present at both, but I have not had a chance to speak with them one-on-one, nor did I think it appropriate to ask questions about their managerial style in a panel situation. Since I have had managers from hell in the past, the rapport with a potential manager is at the top of my lists in considering a job. My second interview was on Monday and I wrote them a thank-you that indicated that I have concerns I’d like to address (I listed some that also include non-managerial concerns about this new position they have created and its potential for success given the expectations I am sensing). In response, they requested references and maybe we can talk next week about the concerns.

My question is whether/how I can request to talk before she calls my references. I don’t want to put her or my references through the effort if I continue to feel as uncertain as I currently do about the position.

Try this: “I’m definitely happy to supply references! Would it be possible to talk through some of the questions I mentioned before you contact them? I know my references tend to be busy, so I want to be thoughtful about that and make sure we’re aligned on things like XYZ first. If everything sounds like a match at that point, I’d be glad to give you the go-ahead on contacting them then.”

It’s too late for this, but I wouldn’t have framed the note you sent earlier as about “concerns,” because that’s a fairly negative word for the context (just like I wouldn’t tell a candidate I wanted to share my concerns about them in our next meeting). You’re generally better off (a) first waiting to see if they invite you back for another interview (or make you an offer) and (b) then saying something like, “I have some questions that I thought were better addressed to you one-on-one rather than in a panel interview, and I’m hoping we might have time for that in this next meeting.”

4. Company invited emails on LinkedIn, then blew me off when I responded

I’m in the process of moving to a new city due to my spouse’s job, and although I’m sad to leave my current job, which I love, there is a very similar organization in our new city. They’re not hiring at the moment, according to their website, but yesterday saw a post by them on LinkedIn that said the following: “Are you interested in working with us? Our HR team is always happy to chat about opportunities and answer any questions you may have. Reach out anytime to jobs@company.org.”

I emailed the linked address to introduce myself and explain my skill set and that I am going to be moving to their city in April. I explained that I see they don’t have any current opportunities, but I’m interested in working with them in future and I’m curious if they know if any new positions will be posted in the near future.

They responded the next day with a completely impersonal form letter explaining that their job opportunities are posted on their website. I checked the website, and there are still no new postings. I’m mildly offended by this, and I’m wondering if that’s unreasonable of me. I feel like there’s no reason to invite emails while having zero job postings if they aren’t even going to talk to people! Of course I understand that job postings will be on the website and I should apply there. Obviously I will do that if and when they post a job that’s a fit for me, but there are no postings. Was I wrong to send the email? Am I wrong to be annoyed?

Eh, it’s mildly annoying, but I wouldn’t give it much thought beyond that. A lot of organizations say that kind of thing, and sometimes it was written years ago and the person responding to email inquiries right now isn’t taking that into account. Or they sent the wrong form letter. Or the person responding is really junior and doesn’t know what to do with inquiries not connected to a specific posting. Or that LinkedIn posting was automated and just gets posted periodically and no one thought to remove it while they’re not hiring.

And often those broad invitations like the one you saw just don’t mean much in practice. They sound good in theory (“of course we want to hear from good candidates even when we don’t have openings”!) but the reality is often more “there’s nothing I can feasibly do with you until something opens up.”

That means, of course, they shouldn’t post that language to begin with, but it’s incredibly common to post it and not really act on it. You didn’t do anything wrong by taking it at face value, though.

5. How to turn down a request to apply for a job

I’m in an odd position. I am a research librarian who works full-time at a research institute and part-time at a college/university setting. I took the part-time job five years ago to grow my skills set and try new challenges. While I like working with students, I don’t think I’d be a good academic librarian. My boss and the other full-time librarian both have mentioned to me that they are trying to get funding to hire a third full-time person and they think I should apply. I’m flattered, but I don’t want to work there full-time. I like everyone I work with, and I enjoy the reference desk time I get (no reference desk at my day job — just lots and lots of searching), but I like my day job better. I’m also pretty sure it would be a pay cut, but that’s the least of my concerns. How do I politely tell my boss and coworkers that I like working part-time there and won’t be applying for the full time job?

“Thanks so much for suggesting it! I really like the arrangement we have now where I’m part-time here and don’t want to change it, but I appreciate you flagging it for me.”

That’s it! I think you’re thinking you need to go into lengthy explanations, but (at least so far) you really don’t. If they push you further, you could say, “I really like the work I get to do at Other Job and the work I do here, and I wouldn’t want to give up either of them.” But that’s all you need!

{ 444 comments… read them below }

  1. Reluctant Manager*

    LW #5: Keep in mind that they may not have funding for you and a FT person, so the status quo might not be an option–but hey, cross that bridge when you come to it…

    1. Safetykats*

      This is a really good point, and it’s worth asking whether the planned full-time position would replace the part-time position, or be in addition to it. Of course, that may not change whether OP is interested in the full-time position, but at least being let go (if that is what happens) when they do hire a full-time person wouldn’t be a surprise.

    2. Tuckerman*

      As someone who used to work in an academic library, that was the first thing that came to my mind.

    3. CupcakeCounter*

      Or they think that #5 really wants to be FT there and that is why they are pushing for the FT person.
      Either way, she should let her coworkers know that she doesn’t want to go to FT so they can plan accordingly and she has some heads up about possibly losing the side gig.

      1. OP5*

        The full time position would be in addition to the part time positions (I’m actually one of three part timers). When I first started there, the staffing ratio was three full time and three part time librarians. After two retirements, only one full time has been replaced, and of the 5 branches, ours is the one with the fewest full time librarians. And we’re the 2nd biggest branch campus.

        It took almost 2 years to replace the 2nd librarian who retired, so I’m guessing if they do get funding to have a third librarian, it’ll be a while.

  2. Safetykats*

    For OP1 – an open door policy generally doesn’t mean you have to put up with random interruptions at all times of the day. It should absolutely be okay to say “I’m just finishing something right now; please come back in 20 minutes.” Or alternatively, “I’ve got to get this finished – I will come see you when I have a minute.” Then just go back to what you were doing. If your interrupting employee doesn’t take this pretty clear direction, you would feel free to say “I’m sorry – I really don’t have time right now. You can come back in 20 minutes, and I will be able to make time for you then.” My guess is that once you’ve done this a dozen or so times, they will get the hint.

    The key is to remember that “open door” should mean “reasonable access.” For osmeone who isn’t your boss to expect to EVER walk in and take up your time without first asking if you have time is not reasonable access. Also, popping in more than once an hour (which it sounds like they are doing) isn’t reasonable at all. Is there seriously nobody else who can address any of these questions? And if not, why not?

    1. Reluctant Manager*

      This “blaming” a senior colleague for performance problems raises red flags for me. If she can’t get what she needs in a daily (!) meeting and won’t take responsibility for her own performance, she sounds like someone who needs to go.

      And ohbytheway… Where’s her manager?

        1. valentine*

          5-10 times a day?
          I’m thinking she’ll push back on reducing this because it’s a show and part of the blame game.

          If so, a chat with her manager or yours might be warranted before telling her to cut it out.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        The blame thing is a bigger problem than the interruptions and signals a big failing on the actual manager’s part if it’s continuing to happen.
        If I were OP I would make it very clear to my manager that I have tried to help through daily (!) meetings but this person needs significantly more hand holding and is causing issues for my ability to get my work done.
        I would also advise the coworker to make a list of all the interruption-worthy questions and bring them to the meeting, which is the dedicated time to answer them. You are allowed to put some boundaries on how you coach someone, on your terms.

      2. Mary*

        I sort of agree, but then OP1 goes on to describe the most Guess culture / conflict-avoidant workplace I’ve ever heard of. We’ve all been in the situation where we’re irritated by someone not getting our perfectly obvious hints, but it does amaze me that someone can manage to write that whole letter and at no point think, “Oh–I haven’t actually *told* her.” Which makes me wonder whether “has tried to blame me for not helping me enough” is actually the employee expressing frustration for never getting a clear answer or clear instructions about what she needs to do!

        1. Lynca*

          Eh I wouldn’t jump to assume that she hasn’t been blaming others. If only because I’m dealing with this right now (I’m not the OP). We have an open door policy and I tell people directly that they need to come back in X minutes when I am free, let me come get you when I’m ready, or something similar. I’m actually really bad about reading social cues myself so I tend to be super direct.

          There are people who still blame you or any other circumstance as the reason why they’re not succeeding. It generally boils down to wanting to blame something other than yourself for any failure. If not answering her questions immediately (and the OP is not saying they wouldn’t answer them at all!) means that they’re failing that is a serious problem that management needs to address.

        2. Confused*

          This. Sometimes you literally can’t do your work until someone like OP answers your question or signs off on something, and tbh, if it was time-sensitive, I’d ignore any hints until they told me when they could get it done. Sorry. My boss doesn’t care that you hinted that you don’t want to be interrupted, they just want it done.

          1. Washi*

            But the OP already has a daily meeting with the employee! I think if this is a job where deadlines are even tighter than that, the OP would not be trying to get her to save everything for the daily (!) meeting and would have mentioned that in the letter.

            1. SarahTheEntwife*

              This kind of sounds like the perfect storm of different conversational/interrupting cultures, plus a dash of obliviousness, plus some ineffective management and/or serious self-confidence issues and/or just plain performance issues. Is she interrupting because she’s just a very chatty person and likes bouncing things off other people and hasn’t realized this isn’t appropriate in this context? Does she not have the support and training she needs to handle these questions for herself? Is she nervous about making decisions on her own that she’s actually perfectly capable of doing? I can’t tell if the employee is having performance issues because she has problems with this type of work in general or if this workplace is just catastrophically wrong for her, but either way it’s Not Working.

              1. OP 1*

                OP here — yeah, this isnt the issue — she has no discernment between what is urgent or not (we have talked to her about this) and if it IS urgent, as in, can’t wait 15 more minutes urgent, it’s driving me crazy that she doesn’t even wait for me to make eye contact.

                Re: why she has so many Qs generally — often they are to ask me to repeat / re explain instructions she’s already been given because she wasn’t listening or didn’t understand. It’s a separate issue that is being addressed.

                1. EPLawyer*

                  If she has no discernment and the performance issues are being addressed but nothing is sticking, it might time to have a talk with your manager. You need to be straightforward with your boss about is happening. Say you have seen no signs of improvement in her discernment, that she still asks questions on instructions despite at the time of instruction being asked if she has any questions. End with an observation that you think it might not be the right job for her. Of courcse it’s your boss’ call, but a good boss takes reasonable input from senior employees seriously.

                2. Smithy*

                  If this is a staff member who’s very weak at soft skills – both in regards to what is urgent and when to walk into your office – I wonder if it might help to ask her to set additional 10 minute meetings on your calendar for “other questions throughout the day”.

                  I work in a very open office space, and so the chance of ‘walk by’ questions combined with chit chat was really overwhelming my boss. Her response was to ask her direct reports to schedule 5 or 10 minute meetings on Outlook for those kinds of questions.

                  While broadly speaking, this certainly won’t help the broader performance issues – but maybe this would serve as a more concrete action in the interim.

                3. Observer*

                  It’s actually NOT a separate issue.

                  When you meet with her, and pretty much any time she comes to you with a question, you should make sure she takes notes, and also make her repeat back what you just told her. I would normally not recommend this, because it can come off as patronizing, but in this case you have this track record of her not taking in or remembering what she was told.

                  There is no reason you can’t say to her “Please wait till I make eye contact (or stop talking to someone else) before you start talking. It makes things was less disruptive.”

                  If your manager knows you’re doing these things there is no way a reasonable boss is going to interpret that as refusing to answer questions.

                4. Susie Q*

                  “Re: why she has so many Qs generally — often they are to ask me to repeat / re explain instructions she’s already been given because she wasn’t listening or didn’t understand. It’s a separate issue that is being addressed.”

                  If she constantly has questions about instructions or is unclear of instructions, this is a very good indicator that the way you are disseminating this information is obviously unclear. Not every person retains information best by hearing it. Do you keep written SOPs and methodology documentations? Perhaps those are more beneficial to the employee as well as others.

                  I agree her behavior is very annoying but so is yours. You’re being very passive which is also not beneficial to the employee or yourself.

                5. Confused*

                  How new is this person? Urgency can be hard to discern if you’re in a new environment, but the meetings would be a good way to lay out what is urgent and what’s not. For the instructions – I would start giving her instructions in writing (as clear and specific as you can be) if you are not already, and let her know that if she does have questions, that this is not an urgent matter in which she should come to your office. If she still does, tell her you’ll address it at the meeting. Repeat as necessary.

                  I get that this is annoying, but I’ve been on both sides of it. Daily meetings are a good strategy though.

                6. valentine*

                  often they are to ask me to repeat / re explain instructions she’s already been given because she wasn’t listening or didn’t understand.
                  She sounds like a bottomless well and you’re doing too much work trying to get her to do hers, including walking eggshells so she doesn’t respond like a child and self-/sabotage.

                  Calculate how much time you’re spending on her (I want to weep about the daily meetings), tell your manager if you foresee improvement, and ask whether they want you spending quite so much time on her.

                7. Glitsy Gus*

                  I had a similar issue with the coworker who sits next to me. I’m the person he goes to when he isn’t sure how to handle something. This part is fine, it’s how things are set up.

                  We have an open office, so when I need to focus on something I put headphones on to block out sound and indicate I’m busy. For months he would just turn his chair and start talking while I obliviously typed away because, until I noticed him in my peripheral vision, I had no idea he was talking to me. I kinda figured that eventually he would just figure that out and waive or do something to get me to take off the head phones, but nope, he never figured it out. Finally I had to just say, “Fergus, when I have headphones on I’m really focusing on something and have the music going so I can’t hear what’s happening around me. If I have them on, can you Slack me when you have a question so I can take them off? I really can’t hear you with them on and I may need to wrap up a thought before I can stop and answer your question.” Since then, he has forgotten a couple times, but for the most part that’s what he does. It really just hadn’t occurred to him that I couldn’t hear him.

            2. Confused*

              I somehow missed the daily meeting part. In that case, yeah, this is excessive – but the meeting is the perfect time to say, hey, please save your questions for this meeting.

          2. Quill*

            Usually an arrangement can be reached, re: signing things though. Most places you can shoot someone an IM with a “heads up, I’ll be by at [next time your calendar is clear of meetings] with some documents to sign.”

            1. Dragoning*

              I tend to IM with “Hey, have some things for you to sign, let me know when you have a few free minutes” and then move on until it becomes more urgent

        3. WellRed*

          So much acting and pretending and putting on of shows that I’m a little put off. Would have taken so much less time to address this.

        4. OP 1*

          OP here. She gets clear instructions, and performance is being addressed separately. Each time I schedule an “let’s review everything you need me to review” meeting I specifically say that it’s because it’s difficult to answer things one off during the day because I’m trying to focus on my own work.

          1. KayDeeAye*

            OP 1, I totally get why you’re frustrated, but you need to be more direct in the moment. Don’t wait for your 1-1s to bring it up, and don’t make this part of a performance review or anything (at least not yet). Just say, “I’m sorry but this isn’t a good time. I’ll come to your desk when I’m done.” Or “Let’s wait for our regular meeting to talk about that.” Or “Could you send me an email on that? I’m in the middle of something here.” And then DO it.

            Assuming the problem persists, follow up afterwards in your 1-1s by saying something directly – politely and kindly but directly – and Alison has provided some excellent scripts for this.

            You sound as though you’re being clear about her performance issues, but I don’t think you’re being nearly as clear about this habit of hers as you think you are. I could be wrong, of course, and if so, I apologize, but it really does sound as though you’re using hints and body language instead of nice, clear words.

            1. Jules the 3rd*

              mm, OP’s got to balance the ‘normal’ reaction (all the ones you give) against the worker’s ‘OP isn’t helping me succeed’ story. OP needs to be able to make it look to her bosses that they’re giving all the help they reasonably can.

              OP, my recommendations:
              1) Let go of your irritation about her style, it will not be productive. Think about whether it’s a product of feeling a little helpless against her story, not being able to let her go when the problem is as bad as it is. Because the problem is *bad*. It’s not her style, it’s that she’s asking a question every hour or so. That’s unreasonable for someone who’s not in training.
              2) Document document document. In the end, she’s asking for repeat instructions, she’s going to have to go. You need to have the paper in place to support that. Documenting of this might look like counting the times she comes in each day and rating the questions on a scale from ‘Shouldn’t have needed to ask’ through ‘Could have waited to the daily’ to ‘Good to ask now’ , with occasional notes like, ‘Asked how to access TPS reports three times, pointed her to documentation’.
              3) Do sit down and have a talk with her, not about style but about substance.
              a) “You regularly ask for repeat information. How can we ensure you understand the info first time?”
              b) “You need to check X, Y, Z before you ask me.”
              c) “Bring a list of questions to our daily, and we’ll work on them then. Outside of that, if you get stuck, write down your question / sticking point, and work on something else until we can answer the question in the daily meeting.”

              You have the daily meeting, push *hard* for that to be your primary tool in working with her, including making it more effective. But track all the times she steps outside of it, because requiring repeated instructions is not sustainable in most jobs, and if she keeps it up, you’ll have a better chance of letting her go if you can prove how much of your time she’s wasting.

              1. Observer*

                This is an excellent set of ideas. While you obviously should be doing your best to help this employee, that doesn’t mean that you need to sacrifice your ability to get your work done. So the key thing you need to do at this point is to make sure that your management knows that you are giving her all the help that is reasonable while you still get your job done.

                Letting your manager know what you are doing and documenting your head off will definitely help with that. It will also be useful for her manager to be aware of what’s happening with you as it’s not a separate issue from the rest of her performance problems.

              2. AKchic*

                All of Jules the 3rd’s notes.

                The Problem Employee (PE) isn’t going to change because she is still getting exactly what she wants when she wants it. Denying her the information in the moment if it isn’t crucial, redirection, and (most likely) helping to manage her out of the position is what’s best.

            2. Marthooh*

              Or when she comes in and asks “OP, how do I…”, OP says “Wait, please”, finishes whatever, looks up, and says “What is it?”

              1. Quinalla*

                Agreed, interrupt her immediately with either “Hold on, wrapping up this email” or “I need to finish this, I’ll IM when I’m done/come back in 20 minutes”

                I would also flat out tell her how you want her to approach you outside of 1 on 1. First analyze the issue, if it is urgent (she can’t proceed with any work without an answer, deadline is looming today, etc.) then bring it to you and say – Do you have a minute for an urgent question? and wait for response before proceeding, if it is not urgent, write it on the list to bring to the 1 on 1 and proceed with something else. I would give her these instructions in writing and if you need the blessing of her manager first, get it to CYA. Explain why you can’t have constant interruptions in writing again as well so she can’t claim that it doesn’t’ seem like a big deal or whatever later.

                Once you have that established, if she doesn’t follow this, again interrupt immediately to ask her to wait, ask if it is urgent, if she says it is, hear her out and redirect to 1 on 1 if it is NOT urgent unless it is something you can answer in 30 seconds (or whatever small time increment seems reasonable). Either way, remind her every time she needs to ask if you have a minute and wait and not just launch in.

                I’ve worked with some people where I have to be what feels to me like rudely direct and I’m wiling to be pretty darn direct. This sounds like a person that may need a level of directness you aren’t expecting.

                Good luck, this sound exhausting!

              2. Jadelyn*

                This. I was a little surprised that nowhere in the advice that I saw included “interrupt her interruption to ask her to wait a moment.” For so long as she’s continuing to get what she wants by interrupting like this, she’s going to keep doing it. Hinting hasn’t worked, so be direct.

                Problem employee: *comes in and immediately launches into a detailed question*
                OP: Hold on a moment – I’m in the middle of [writing an email/updating a spreadsheet/whatever] and need to finish that before I shift gears. Have a seat, I’ll be with you in just a sec.

                Then OP finishes whatever thing before responding to her.

            3. TootsNYC*

              send her away every time. Even if it’s urgent.
              Don’t reward her with an actual answer to her question. Don’t even let her finish; interrupt and say, “I’m in the middle of something, please save this for our ‘touching base’ session at 1:15.”

              Always be at those sessions; don’t skip them. But also don’t answer her.

            4. Kelsi*

              This. OP1, you need to learn to be unavailable and to hold the line. Have that daily meeting. If she comes in at another time, say “I’m sorry, Jane, I’m not available to discuss that right now, please bring it to our meeting this afternoon (or whenever the meeting is scheduled).” She might insist that it will just take a minute, in which case you can say, “I’m sorry, but I’m not available for interruptions right now, even short ones.” Hold this line unless something’s on fire.

              This is going to feel counter-intuitive if you really could have answered the question in the same amount of time as just saying you’re not available. It’s not faster or less disruptive in the moment (and it might even take longer if she tries to argue with you.) But the time you spend isn’t really the point–the point is the interruption, which steals way more time from you than just the time you spend answering. If you’re not rewarding her for interrupting (by answering her question) then she will eventually be less inclined to interrupt you.

              1. TootsNYC*

                This is going to feel counter-intuitive if you really could have answered the question in the same amount of time as just saying you’re not available. It’s not faster or less disruptive in the moment (and it might even take longer if she tries to argue with you.) But the time you spend isn’t really the point–the point is the interruption,

                This is why parents demand their children come hang up their jacket from the living room floor–it’s consistency of feedback.

          2. Well Then*

            I get that there’s an open door policy, but maybe it’s time to not take that so literally and just shut your door when you can’t be interrupted. If she barges in past a closed door, that’s demonstrably rude and may be an easier line to draw.

      3. SlenderFluid*

        Maybe there’s a bit of expectation management needed here? The perceived unhelpfulness of OP1 could be down to not being instantly switched on to the needy colleague, who’s been told “Oh, we have a very collegial attitude here, anyone is ready to help you at any time.” They need to be aware that that doesn’t mean colleagues can be treated like living Wikipedia pages to be dropped into at will regardless of context.
        How you do that with someone who doesn’t pick up on hints (or categorizes them as ‘being unhelpful’) though? Dunno. Unless you can adopt a general point for addressing problems, and ask them to think over their issue first, and work out how to frame it as a single question/statement. As a personal strategy, I find that often just having to focus on what the key issue actually is goes halfway to addressing it.
        At the very least, OP1 will have some pushback on the wordiness of the interventions by pointing out that coworker hasn’t done what was asked in framing the request.

        1. Jadelyn*

          “Living Wikipedia page” oh my god thank you for giving me a term to describe what I feel like most days around here.

          (I’m That Employee with the institutional knowledge about our weirder exceptions to policy in the last few years, and all the unofficial “conversations” behind those exceptions and stuff, so people run across things and immediately it’s “let me ask Jadelyn, they were probably involved in that and can explain the context for me”. Which, yes, I can, but I also have my own work to do. I’m not a Wikipedia page, dammit.)

      4. Massmatt*

        Ugh, I agree, especially with the where is the manager part. The manager may not be aware of the extent of the problem, or more likely, doesn’t really care because it’s not impacting her.

        This happened to me years ago, my helping others started to hurt my own performance to some extent, I felt like a jerk but I needed to cut back on the interruptions.

        Even if your job is to act as support, and/or the employee is very new, this level of interruption seems awfully excessive. I’d follow Alison’s suggestions in being more explicit with the interrupting employee but also with the interruptor’s manager.

        This person comes to you many times per day AND has a daily (!) meetings (with you, not her manager!?) and she complains of lack of support? Something is very wrong.

      5. Slow Gin Lizz*

        “And ohbytheway… Where’s her manager?”

        My thoughts exactly. Talk to her manager about how she’s interrupting you 5-10 times a day, which is a lot even for a direct report. Her manager definitely needs to know this and may be able to offer you guidance on how to deal with her. Maybe you could just redirect her to her manager every time she interrupts you, which would make her, the employee, more aware of what she’s doing and how maybe if she were doing it to her own manager she would do it less often.

    2. Boldly Go*

      OP1-please just be clear, no hints. I’ve had that issue with supervisors. While I usually *can* take a hint/read body language, it’s not always clear. If my boss responds to my interruption, I’m going to assume that it’s ok to interrupt. (To be clear – I don’t pop into my boss’s office ten times a day, and I know the difference between an issue that can wait until our weekly check-in, and “the data system is charging credit cards three times instead of one”

    3. Junior Assistant Peon*

      I have one of these coworkers. I’m constantly asking her to repeat herself because she’s usually halfway through talking by the time I realize she’s speaking directly to me.

    4. Artemesia*

      This. The OP needs to train this person now. I thought Alison’s best idea was the standing appointment — ‘I need to be able to work without interruption unless it is a real emergency, so let’s meet every day at 2 for 10 minutes when you can raise these questions. Only interrupt when there is a time sensitive emergency.’ The concept ‘interrupt’ seems to have escaped this person so that language should be used. And then if it isn’t an emergency, they need to be told ‘put that on your list and come back at 2 — I have a deadline I need to meet now.’

      1. Artemesia*

        And someone like this who doesn’t listen, doesn’t learn and blames superiors for her failures needs to go. Start preparing your own boss to understand how seriously she is not getting it in spite of endless help offered.

  3. Free Meerkats*

    Dear Hinters,

    Knock that stuff off. If you want someone to do or not do something, say what you want/don’t want. We’re not mind readers, and even if we get the inkling that you’re hinting, we just might ignore it because we prefer clear communication.

    And don’t get pissy when we give clear direction instead of dancing around what we want to say.

    Thank you,
    Clear communicators

      1. Nee Attitude*

        And, may I add, that it’s not that we are ignoring the hints, it’s that the hints don’t tell us anything. If you see me come by and let out a heavy sigh, I might think that you are just tired of staring at your screen and you want a break. My other colleagues who do that very same thing are looking for a chat buddy; I’d have no way of knowing that you mean the exact opposite unless you say so (but please don’t spend months building up anger at me before you decide to speak).

      2. DiscoCat*

        Thank you 1000x! I get that the employee has issues and that her manager isn’t doing their job managing her properly, but ignoring her while she rambles 2-4 sentences until she comes to a blundering stop is straight up shitty behaviour in itself. Passive aggressive and counterproductive, she already knows that she has performance issues ( at least I hope, or has that only been hinted at her too?!), so behaviour like this will only frustrate her more and cause her to try to mitigate it by blaming you. Maybe I’m misreading, but why does she have to come to you for info? Perhaps she turns up so often because you also fail to communicate the job details clearly!
        So between you and her manager, try some open, clear communication and manage her. Do your jobs!

        1. Mongrel*

          “…but ignoring her while she rambles 2-4 sentences until she comes to a blundering stop is straight up shitty behaviour in itself”


          Rambling 2-4 sentences AT a person “without waiting for me to acknowledge her, make eye contact, or otherwise indicate that I’m available in any way.”
          Is a terrible way to act. Go into office, say “Hi OP” and wait for OP to say or do something that invites a conversation.
          If I’m waist deep in sorting a problem or cross referencing between 3 piles of data and 2 web pages I can manage a “Sec…” or index finger in the air to a “Hi”, even if I look up immediately it’s probably going to take me a sentence or two to actually switch processes.

          Could the OP be more direct? Yes, but waiting for someone to acknowledge you before trying to carry on a conversation is a basic social rule otherwise you’re just walking into someones office and monologueing at them

          1. Anononon*

            No one is saying the employee is without blame. But she’s not going to be getting a ton of advice on this thread because she didn’t write in.

            1. Mongrel*

              It just seemed that everyone is berating the OP for not communicating clearly when the primary breach is the cultural (not just work) norm of walking into an office and talking at a person.
              Yes, the person could have some issues with social cues, but that’s both highly speculative and not up to the OP to diagnose. As a side note most people who struggle with this sort of thing are aware they have issues and normally have no problem being nicely corrected.
              And, yes the employee didn’t write in so we can only respond to the OP that having someone do that is not normal but be a bit more clear about communicating expectations.

          2. OP 1*

            Yeah, part of the issue is that she’s so oblivious is that she’ll probably take “please stop interrupting me like this” as “you are not allowed to ask Questions,” which we don’t want to do because otherwise she does stuff wrong. That’s why I haven’t been more “clear.”

            1. Mary*

              This sounds massive, and I think you’ve maybe identified a much bigger issue here? If you can’t give her a direct instruction because you think she’ll read something totally different into it, that’s a massive performance issue and should be right at the heart of the performance management, not a minor annoyance to address separately.

            2. EPLawyer*

              Happy medium — please don’t start talking until I have acknowledged you are in my office. She can still come to you with questions, but it is clear to not just start rambling. Most people need a couple of secs to process someone is speaking to them if it just … starts.

              Also, if she does stuff wrong because she is repeatedly not understanding instructions, then it is time to decide how much handle holding are you willing to give to an employee? Is this only been going on for a couple of weeks? Or months? If it is months — she has shown you the type of employee she is, believe her. Time to admit everyone cannot be coached up and let her go.

              1. OP 1*

                That’s a separate issue that is being addressed. Re: “please wait until I acknowledge that you’re in my office” — that’s what I would in theory like to say but the wording there sounds pretty condescending when I don’t have the standing to be.

                1. Toads, Beetles, Bats*

                  OP1, I think you’re walking on some eggshells here, and you really don’t have to. “Please wait until I acknowledge that you’re in my office” won’t sound condescending if you say it in a perfectly normal, non-irritated tone. You can follow up with “when you don’t wait for my full attention, I miss some of what you say and I don’t want to do that” if you want to soften it further. (Though honestly, I wouldn’t. Streamlining expectations would be the kindest thing for the employee here.)

                2. Yvette*

                  How about “When you come in, I do notice you, but I don’t want to break my concentration and so please give me a minute to wrap up what I am doing.” ? Or just say “Give me a minute” as soon as she walks in without giving her a chance to say anything. Or, without making eye contact, hold up a finger (no not that one!) keep doing your work until you can pause and then acknowledge her.

                3. Important Moi*

                  Ok you’d like a script? How about?

                  “Hey! Hold on, you didn’t give me chance to say whether or not I could answer your questions right now.” Say it lightly and with a smile.

                  Then say whichever applies:
                  – “I can answer now”.
                  – “Can you come back at [specific time]?”
                  – “I’ll get back to you [provide specific time or after specific event]”

                4. Name of Requirement*

                  I think if you spell it out it’s not condescending. Ask her to give a knock or a greeting, then wait for your reply before launching the question.
                  That gives you an opening to say- come back later, email, I’ll come to you when I’m done, etc.
                  And maybe emailing answers would be helpful if you’re getting a lot of repeat scenarios- you can have her refer back to her emails if you have answered it before.

                5. Marthooh*

                  The interruptions can best be dealt with in the moment.I posted this script elsewhere:

                  Jane: OP, how do I…
                  OP: Wait, please. Finishes whatever, then looks up. What is it?

                  If Jane tries to keep going with her very important question, you can alternate “wait please” with “please wait”, “one moment”, and “hang on”, without looking up. Then make her start the whole question again.

                6. Ali G*

                  OP1 I think the fact that you got “blamed” here is making you gun shy, and you don’t have to be. This person is new to your company, struggling, and apparently not very good at her job. You, on the other had are a senior staffer, and assumingly, have some credibility with your peers and bosses. I doubt anyone actually thinks it’s your fault she’s not getting it done. Don’t let that stand in your way in putting up boundaries with her.
                  If you really aren’t sure where you stand, ask your boss! I’d bet she gets it and the more honest you are with her about what’s going on the easier it will be to let this person go and move on (because really that’s what needs to be done here).

                7. fhqwhgads*

                  I think you already have the standing to rearrange this because you have the daily meetings. Since she’s already shown she doesn’t understand urgency, don’t try to get her to wait for acknowledgment. I think your goal should be to get her to stop coming to your office other than the meeting. You’ve told her to accumulate her questions for the daily meeting. Do it again. Next time she pops in, interrupt her and say “we’ve discussed this, I really need you to hold your questions for our meeting and we’ll go over everything then.” If she says “but it’s urgent” give her one sentence worth of protestation before you redirect. If she has any sense at all she should not read “never ask questions” from “ask questions at specific time and place”. If she does shut down and stop asking questions due to this, it signals to me she’s not misunderstanding the request or reading too much into it, she’s probably just reacting poorly to not getting exactly what she wants, when she wants, how she wants. That’s not the same thing as not being helped. You could even state it outright “I am not trying to discourage you from asking me questions. I am glad to help you. But you cannot continue coming to my office so frequently. You need to learn to save your questions for the meeting unless something is truly urgent. There should not be multiple urgent issues every day. Can you do that?”

                  Or your alternate approach is to tell her manager to tell her this, if it might land better coming from that person. If you’re both convinced it won’t, then I wonder why you’re keeping this person on.

                8. Yorick*

                  “Hey, sometimes I don’t realize you’re here and talking to me right away, please make sure you get my attention before you start asking your question.”

                9. TootsNYC*

                  I agree with the earlier comment that none of these things are separate issues.

                  And it’s time to speed up the process of removing her from the office.
                  Think how much more productive you are all going to be when you have someone who can listen to instructions and remember them and conform to basic office etiquette about interruptions.

                10. OP 1*

                  The “ahh sorry I didn’t get a chance to say whether I was available to answer a question” response language is a good idea, thank you.

                11. AKchic*

                  I really think that with her “blaming” you, you’ve gotten into this habit of trying to limit or avoid risking any chance of giving off even a whiff of offense in case she cries foul again.

                  Here’s the problem with that – I think she cried wolf the first time and used you as a scapegoat to minimize her own culpability and to avoid taking responsibility for her own workplace problems. She’s dumped her problems on you and you have somewhat willingly taken the burden and are trying to avoid taking on any more social burdens because you’ve already shouldered a social burden that you never actually made in the first place.
                  I know it’s easier said than done, but stop accepting the idea that you didn’t help/train her in the first place. You did. She just wasn’t capable of absorbing it and doesn’t want to admit it.
                  Be direct. You can be as polite about it as you’d like, but being direct isn’t rude. She’s been rude.

                12. Glitsy Gus*

                  I have people just walk up to me a lot. I’m a big fan of flat out interrupting them with, “One sec, please. *type type type*… OK, what’s up?” It’s still friendly, but you aren’t letting them get into anything at all before cutting them off. It’s a good habit builder, sometimes I even say it if I’m not in the middle of something urgent, but the person is a repeat offender.

                13. Greta*

                  Those of us who have trouble understanding subtle hints aren’t going to be offended when you come right out and use words that leave no doubt as to what you really mean. On the contrary, it’s the way you have to communicate with us if you want us to understand. As long as you don’t raise your voice, call us mean names, swear at us, or flip us the bird, we’re not going to be offended.

            3. Blue Eagle*

              Again “please stop interrupting me like this” is dancing around the issue and is another hint. Tell this employee explicitly what to do. i.e. “when you come in to my office please say Hi Mary and wait for me to acknowledge you before you start asking your question”. or “please save your questions so that you don’t need to come into my office more than once in the morning and once in the afternoon unless something is urgent” or “please write down the instructions while you are in my office when I tell you the answer so that you don’t have to come in 5 minutes later and ask again because you don’t remember what I told you (but nicer because I just typed this as I was thinking out loud)”.

              Tell the person what to do – not what not to do, because if you only focus on what not to do the person will continue to do something else that you don’t want to have done.

            4. Aquawoman*

              There’s a reason so many of Alison’s response start with some form of asking or suggesting that something be communicated directly. The fact that you have put “clear” in scare quotes and are blaming her for your lack of clarity suggests to me that you’re just uncomfortable being direct. Which is understandable but it’s not fair to blame the employee for something you imagine her doing. “Eleanor, I want to answer your questions, but it would be helpful to me if we could save them for our daily meeting unless it’s an emergency.” Then if she comes to you with a non-emergency question, tell her you can discuss it at the daily meeting.

            5. Jules the 3rd*

              It may help to give her an alternative. Instead of just ‘please stop interrupting me’, would ‘write down your questions, bring them to me at the daily meeting, and work on something else until the meeting’ work?

              And also you say much of these are repeats – spend some time on ‘I’m repeating a lot of stuff, like X, Y. How can we confirm that you have it the first time? Can you write it down, and paraphrase it back to me?’

            6. Oh So Anon*

              I was wondering if this was part of the issue, OP1. This can be a challenge that keeps people from being direct with people whose reading of social cues isn’t that great – it’s not uncommon for them to be really taken aback and misinterpret directness as meanness.

              1. Greta*

                As a person who can’t read subtle hints, I don’t get offended when people are direct. On the contrary, I need people to be as direct as possible for me to understand them.
                I can understand why some people might feel offended by someone being that direct to them; because it implies that they are incapable of taking a hint. I imagine that if you are capable of taking a hint, you might be insulted by the implication that you aren’t.
                But those of us who can’t pick up on subtle hints aren’t going to be offended by the implication that we can’t; because we genuinely can’t!

            7. Kat*

              It sounds like there are a lot of issues with this employee. In which case clear and direct feedback is really important. If you think they will misinterpret direct feedback it’s even MORE important to be clear because they for sure won’t get more subtle hints or body language. If they interpret it as “don’t ask questions” you can say “I’m ok with answering questions. But you have a habit of walking in and talking without checking if I’m available. I need you to do that because…blah blah blah (what has been covered here). Also, you have a habit of asking questions repeatedly. I need you to start taking notes and then referring to those notes BEFORE you come talk to me. That way my time can be spent more efficiently or blah blah blah.

              Then if she interrupts you interrupt her and say “remember we talked about you checking first? Now is not a good time” or “give me 5 mins to wrap this up”. And if she asks a question you’ve answered before just ask her “did you check your notes from the last time we spoke about this?” If she didn’t “I need you to please do that first like we discussed”. Or you can ask her why she didn’t check first before asking you but that can get into a longer discussion than you maybe have time for at the moment.

        2. SarahTheEntwife*

          I agree that the hinting is not a good way to manage (ask/guess cultural differences are a real thing and should be respected, but I think it’s generally a good idea for managers to err on the side of directness, especially if an employee isn’t picking up on the initial hint), but it might not be a matter of ignoring. I tend to get very focused in my work and will straight up not register that someone is talking to me until they’re a couple sentences in unless they say my name or otherwise make it really obvious that they need my attention. I’m not ignoring them; I just haven’t switched to listening mode yet.

          That’s one reason I love our (big open) office’s culture of everyone wearing headphones. I don’t have to overhear too much of other people’s conversations, and it’s really obvious that I will literally not hear you until you get my attention and I take the headphones off.

    1. Dan*


      OP’s junior colleague is certainly a handful, but OP is doing herself ZERO favors by doing everything she can to avoid being direct.

    2. Avasarala*

      Wow! I agree that OP should be more direct and say something like, “I’m busy right now, can you ask me at our meeting later?” But I don’t think that warrants this stance of “I refuse to accept indirect communication.” It’s a very useful tool when deployed appropriately: a more skillful person might have walked up to OP’s door, seen the headphones, and decided to come back later. It’s a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer.

      Not to mention that there is a huge cultural gap about this worldwide, and learning to read indirect/high context communication is a necessary skill in international teams. There’s value in learning when to be direct, and when to be subtle.

      1. WooHoo!*

        YES! THANK YOU!
        It is a much needed skill. A bull in a china shop approach is not the best approach to things, especially communication at work.

      2. cncx*

        exactly. there’s a lot of grey area and room for manoeuver between OP should use their words and employee should take a hint. I’ve worked in international teams my entire career and learning context and indirect communication is indeed a soft skill.

      3. Mary*

        >>a more skillful person might have walked up to OP’s door, seen the headphones

        But headphones don’t universally mean, “don’t interrupt me!” In lots of places, the quid pro quo of being able to wear headphones at work is that it’s fine to interrupt and it’s explicitly not a way of shutting out queries and interaction with colleagues!

        1. Anononon*

          Yeah, seriously. Some people at my work wear headphones the entire day just because they like listening to music/podcasts.

          1. Quill*

            Or because being able to hear other people’s chairs creaking, typing, chewing, walking, drives them directly up their cube wall. :)

        2. SubluxedMatrix*

          I wear headphones because I work in an open office, and if I didn’t, I’d be constantly distracted by the marketing team four rows back. I’m still open to my team interrupting me and asking me questions.

          1. OP 1*

            Yes, this — I don’t want headphones to mean “Dont ask me anything.” I just need it to mean “please make eye contact and ask if this is a good time first.”

            1. Mary*

              OK, but bear in mind that headphones don’t *mean* anything by themselves. :) You can ask people to behave in a particular way when they see you wearing them–“If I’m wearing headphones, please make eye contact and ask if this is a good time first!”–but don’t assume that they are a universal code and that everyone knows that there is one and only one polite way to approach someone wearing headphones!

              1. OP 1*

                Totally agreed — my headphones point is that I’m surprised she doesn’t even wonder whether I can even hear her without getting my attention first.

                1. Kat*

                  I know from some of the comments OP1 it can seem like we’re picking on you but this would bug me so much I totally would be tempted to pretend I didn’t hear the person and let them ramble for a few minutes then act surprised they’re there. And then I would say sorry I couldn’t hear you and now is not a good time.
                  Totally passive aggressive and totally not what we’re suggesting you do. I just really understand your frustration with this person and it would drive me batty.

              2. Anonymouse*

                They certainly mean that it’s possible this person can’t hear me and I should maybe wait for them to take their headphones off before I begin speaking.

            2. TootsNYC*

              insist she knock?

              There’s a doorframe, right? Insist she knock and wait for you to acknowledge her.

            3. pamplemousse*

              Then you need to say that!

              These conversations are tough because they do sound awkward, condescending, confrontational, etc., particularly if you’re not someone who’s used to being direct about what you need and expect with friends or relatives. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to learn to live with that discomfort for a bit, or she’s not going to change.

              What’s the worst thing that could happen if you tell her exactly what you mean and what you need from her, and she thinks you’re being rude or condescending, but she does what you want? If the answer is that you’re seriously concerned that her opinion of you will affect your standing at work, you need to make sure you’re documenting what’s happening so far and have a clear, honest, just-the-facts conversation with your supervisors about her.

        3. EventPlannerGal*

          The point is not “here is a universal rule that everyone can follow in every circumstance ever”. The point is about learning to interpret the environment and actions of people around you at a level beyond having things spelled out in small words. Knowing the norms of your office (such as whether headphones are a don’t-talk signal or just what people do) is part of that.

          1. Oh So Anon*

            Also, knowing how different people signal things. In some offices, headphones on one person are a “seriously don’t bother me” signal, whereas for their colleague it’s just a thing they do and they’re open to interruptions.

          2. Avasarala*

            Yes, thank you! Knowing that there aren’t universal rules is part of reading the atmosphere of your office! Most people are actually really skilled at reading non-verbal and indirect communication, and it’s very antagonistic and self-sabotaging to say “I reject any communication not literally spelled out to me.”

      4. Fikly*

        Except that understanding indirect communication is a skill that many people are unable to learn, for valid neurological reasons. When there’s a perfectly usable alternative that everyone can use, why rely on something that only some can use?

        1. Lynca*

          Because it’s not a binary issue? Communication is complex and should be versatile. I say this as someone with a neurological issue that makes it hard to grasp indirect communication. But that doesn’t make it bad. The problem isn’t the use of indirect communication. It’s that OP hasn’t escalated it up to direct communication when it didn’t work.

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*


            I hate the idea that there’s “hinting and nonverbal communication OR clear verbal explicit statements” and nothing in between. That’s simply not true.

            There’s a continuum, and different uses for different types of communication, and one is not necessarily superior to the other.

        2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          I don’t believe that most people are completely incapable of learning to read nonverbal cues. Some people need the meaning of nonverbal cues to be more explicitly explained to them, but that’s different than being incapable of learning to read them.

          1. Aquawoman*

            That’s … way more complicated than you think. People have a combination of nonverbal cues and each person has a different combination of nonverbal cues. I also think the OP is capable of learning how to speak directly.

        3. anon for this one*

          As someone who is a bit rigid about rules/not great at adapting to different communication styles/not neurotypical AND grew up in a very indirect-communication culture/family: it’s not that simple, IMHO?

          I learned the language I grew up with, and have a great deal of difficulty interpreting direct communication, especially when tired or nervous or otherwise stressed out. Direct communication, in an indirect world, is often a deliberate insult, and it’s not always easy to convince yourself that your boss (or whoever) doesn’t hate you when they’re treating you in a way that was reserved for small children and people one wanted to imply were too clueless to be worth anything.

          1. anon for this one*

            Addendum: I absolutely agree it is time for OP to be direct. It’s absolutely okay from both cultural perspectives—the coworker is having performance issues and if they do see directness as a criticism that’s appropriate at this point.

          2. Washi*

            Right! Very direct communication is not the norm in a lot of offices so deploying it in a way that doesn’t come off as rude and unhelpful requires some real finesse and just as much social skill as a hint. It bothers me that letter writers who are struggling to be direct but still professional get jumped on, when I think they deserve just as much understanding as someone struggling to read indirect messages.

          3. pamela voorhees*

            This is very, very important. It’s all well and good to say “you should just be direct! It’s so obvious!” but think of it like you were raised in a world where everyone whispered to communicate and now people are telling you “Why don’t you just shout! It’s so obvious, just shout everything, all the time! You and your whispering is the problem!” If I’m trying to “whisper” to you and you start “shouting” at me, I’m absolutely going to assume you’re furiously angry with me and do my absolute best to never speak to you again because I don’t want to be screamed at. This is an imperfect example obviously, but I just understood “direct communication is a deliberate insult”so deep in my soul that I want other people to grasp it too.

          4. Oh So Anon*

            Yup. I generally operate on the principle that people aren’t going to directly tell you anything unless they are just about beyond done with you. Then again, it’s pretty easy to identify the people who are direct-without-thinking-you’re-an-idiot by default, which helps with interpretation. But yes, if someone goes from being an indirect communicator to being direct with me, it’s pretty easy to take that as a sign that I really messed up and am clueless.

          5. Avasarala*

            Yes! I hate to say it but people with extremely direct communication styles come across as rude, aggressive and insensitive to people used to indirect communication styles.

            If a senior person in my indirect office said to me, “Please do not interrupt me. I need you to wait until I acknowledge you before you ask me a question.” I would wonder what on earth I had done to offend them and deserve this dressing down.

            Instead I would expect them to say, “Sorry, can you hold on a second? Actually maybe it would be better if you save it for our meeting later?”

            1. Clisby*

              I would agree if this were the first time I interacted with this person. Once I heard “Sorry, can you hold on a second? Actually maybe it would be better if you save it for our meeting later?” I would know never to just show up unannounced again. From what I’m reading here apparently there are people who would not get that (clear to me) message, so how much needs to happen before the senior person goes to “Please do not interrupt me …”

          6. we're basically gods*

            Ooh, all of this! Also neuroatypical and a bit rigid about rules (mostly for myself, because if I follow the rules, then I won’t get in trouble) and I do struggle sometimes with direct communication! Normally the indirect signals convey what I should be doing, but I will say that I appreciate direct communication if something slips through– even if it leaves me mortified and basically miserable in the moment, it’s so much better than continuing to do things wrong. Corrections let me update my rules for what I’m supposed to be doing so I don’t mess up again!
            This is one of those things that changes from workplace to workplace, and furthermore, from person to person; saying that one way or another is the One And Only Right Way is ridiculous and rigid.

        4. Elspeth Mcgillicuddy*

          For the same reason I’d happily write a note for a deaf person, but expect a hearing person to listen to my mouth sounds? Lots of people are entirely unable to use sound as a method of communication but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad method of communication or that it should be avoided entirely in case one of my coworkers is hard of hearing!

        5. Oh So Anon*

          Part of the challenge is that even people who have innate challenges with understanding indirect communication can also struggle to feel comfortable with directness. There’s this idea that people who aren’t otherwise sensitive to social cues will read bluntness in a neutral way, but that’s not universally true.

    3. MK*

      If you are not getting very clear hints that any reasonably intelligent and aware person would get, you are not simply not a mind reader, you are being self-centered and obtuse and not willing to develop the necessary skills to function in most workplaces. If I am dealing with a child, I will spell everything out, but a working adult should have a minimum of social intelligence.

      If you are getting the hints and refusing to act on them because you prefer clear communication, you are a passive -agressive jerk who plays mind games. Also, a first-class hypocrite; should a clear communicator, you know, communicate clearly that they need to be specifically told everything, because apparently reading cues is beneath them?

      I am a direct person myself. I am also aware that my own communication style is not legally mandatory and I don’t get to set these rules. And in my experience, people who make big proclamations about wanting others to be direct are usually the ones who might get offended if someone takes them up on their word.

      1. MK*

        To be clear, I do think the OP needs to start being blunt. But that is because this employee is being rude and obtuse about how asking coworkers for help should be done, not because the OP is being overly subtle in her communication style.

      2. Myrin*

        Yeah, I’m straightforward myself but often rely on hints as a first means of communication. Depending on the situation, it allows the other person to save face and not make a big deal out of something relatively benign. I’m always ready and willing to escalate to more direct language but I don’t see why I shouldn’t start out assuming that my counterpart is a socially prudent person with tact and a feeling for a situation’s “vibe”.

        1. DyneinWalking*

          “Start subtle and slowly escalate as far as needed” ought to be the standard approach. Most people DO get hints, and in those cases it solves issues more quickly and efficiently without drawing undue attention to it. E.g. it allows you to address problems in the moment, with other people present, without putting someone in the spotlight.
          Hints and non-verbal communication are still valuable tools for communication. The key is to move on to other tools when that approach fails, instead of trying the same thing over and over. Just because some situations require a hammer doesn’t mean that you should never use a scalpel.

          1. we're basically gods*

            It reminds me of the question earlier this week about the employee who accidentally posted porn to the company slack. There are so, so many weird games we play as a society to allow people to save face and gracefully correct errors. I’d argue that knowing when to use a scalpel and when to use a hammer is one of those really important soft skills not just for work, but for life in general.

        2. Arctic*

          Saying “actually I’m just wrapping up and need 10 minutes (or whatever.)” or “I’m swampoed at the moment. Can I grab you when I’m done.” Is perfectly polite and requires no guesswork.

          Why would you start with passive aggressive?

            1. Yorick*

              Idk, I think making a show of dragging your eyes from the screen and then being mad that the person doesn’t know they’re an annoying interruption is kinda passive aggressive.

          1. Myrin*

            I mean, in this particular situation – the one OP is talking about – I would indeed react the way you describe here, mostly because it seems much simpler than having others play guesswork with my delayed looking-up-from-my-computer-screen. In others, it might be, for example, kinder to my counterpart to gently get them to drop a subject or reroute a conversation so that they aren’t horribly embarrassed because I’ve directly called them out. That’s why I said “depending on the situation” – I was speaking in more general terms, not ones tailored to this OP and this coworker.
            (And I also, again, agree with the Countess.)

          2. Archaeopteryx*

            Nonverbal hints aren’t passive aggressive unless you’re doing them that way. Starting off with hints before you escalate to talking about it gives someone plausible deniability and a chance to save face.

        3. Librarian1*

          YES. Start with more subtle forms of communication and move on from there, depending on how the situation develops. It’s not necessarily either/or.

        4. TootsNYC*

          start subtle and escalate to direct language if that proves ineffective

          You are all making the point I came here to say

        5. Dr. Pepper*

          This really is the nub of the matter. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with starting out with subtleties. After all, why shout when a whisper will do? It’s just that so many people are unwilling or unable to escalate to directness when a more subtle approach isn’t working. Why keep whispering when the other person apparently can’t hear you?

          1. TootsNYC*

            I think people also get exasperated by that point, and they don’t trust themselves to get the tone right.

            In those situations, I try to “channel my inner daycare worker.”
            My kids had a great, great daycare, with really professional workers and a great manager. I find that I model myself after them.

            A good daycare worker understands that a lot of a kid’s misbehavior is age-appropriate, or comes from their immaturity; they don’t take it personally. But they also know that it’s important to correct it, or to provide coaching or feedback. So they can be matter-of-fact yet firm.

      3. Mary*

        >>should a clear communicator, you know, communicate clearly that they need to be specifically told everything, because apparently reading cues is beneath them?

        It is *entirely* possible for the Ask culture person to be saying, “Oh sorry–is it OK if I interrupt?” and the Guess culture person to be responding, *heavy sigh*slowly takes off headphones “No, it’s fine, what I can do for you?”

        Ask culture person: I directly asked whether it’s OK to interrupt, and she said it was. If it wasn’t they would just have said, “sorry, now’s not great, could you come back later?”
        Guess culture person: I made it as clear as I possibly could that it’s not OK to interrupt without actually straight up saying so, what the hell is wrong with her.

        1. hbc*

          Yeah, but if Ask notices the heavy sigh, she shouldn’t blithely charge ahead as if she hasn’t gotten that communication. “That was a big sigh, are you sure it’s actually a good time?” Or “Your words are saying yes, but your body language is yelling that I’m bugging you. Is there a better time?”

          You know, direct communication.

          1. Shramps*

            Asking “ “Your words are saying yes, but your body language is yelling that I’m bugging you. Is there a better time?”” is wayyyy to much emotional management to do to a coworker.

            If you don’t want to talk and have the ability to say no, say no. Don’t be passive aggressive and have your coworkers suss out your feelings.

            1. Jules the 3rd*

              I’m a big fan of ‘being aware of the Ask / Guess cultural divide’, but yeah, this is way more work that you should have to do.

          2. Mary*

            I would directly address a mismatch between body language and spoken language in an intimate relationship. I would consider that way too personal in a professional relationship. Direct communicates have boundaries too!

            (I’m actually amazed at the idea that anyone would consider a heavy sigh and negative body language *that directly contradicts an invitation to speak* to be appropriate professional communication. To me, that’s incredibly passive-aggressive and the height of rudeness!)

            1. Yorick*

              Yeah, I wouldn’t assume that was a hint that I should come back later. If I even noticed, I’d just think they’re rude.

              1. SarahTheEntwife*

                I might also just interpret the sigh as a sign that they’re working on something annoying. Or that yes, they’re kind of in the middle of something, but they respect that I also have a legitimate need for their time and are sighing at the general business of the day.

                As someone with social anxiety I’ve had to retrain my brain that no, every little shrug and sigh doesn’t mean that people secretly hate me, but sometimes the brainweasels come back around and worry that I’m then ignoring actual hints that I’m being annoying :-b

              2. Ace in the Hole*

                This is at root the reason why “guess” style communication becomes a problem in the workplace. For guess/indirect communication to work, there has to be a lot of shared context. If everyone shares a similar background and similar culture, they would all have the context to know that a heavy sigh means “I don’t actually want to talk no matter what words I replied with.”

                In the workplace, you (hopefully!) have people from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. Which means even if every single person is more comfortable with guess communication, they all have different contexts. Which means they might each interpret the sigh as different things: an invitation to ask about what’s bothering the sigh-er, a way of signalling “I don’t like you and your questions are irritating,” a request to come back later, etc. Relying on high context communication when you can’t count on a shared context is just asking for trouble.

                It’s fine to hint as a step zero! Just be aware the hint may totally miss the mark and be prepared to turn up the directness BEFORE you get irritated.

              1. Mary*

                the venn diagrams of “this is a reasonable thing to ask of people at work” and “this is a thing I have to do to keep my job” SHOULD be perfect overlaps, but sadly they are not always!

          3. Parenthetically*

            With a *senior colleague*? You’d be comfortable interpreting and emotionally managing a senior colleague’s sighs and body language? As a person who grew up in a very Guessy house and now strives to be more Asky, I might go as far as saying, “Are you sure? It’s no problem to come back in 15 minutes or whenever you’re done.” But I absolutely would not attempt to verbally interpret the emotional cues of a senior colleague back to her in a work context where I was dependent on her input.

            Also, it’s FOR SURE incumbent on managerial and senior types to cultivate directness in their communication. What you described is absolutely passive-aggressive. Telling someone it’s okay to interrupt them while mentally chastising and thinking poorly of them for interrupting is a pretty bad workplace practice.

          4. Antilles*

            Except…you already asked and got a yes. Why would you need to ask again?
            Especially since my sigh very well might not be directed at your interruption. Maybe I’m irritated at the day in general not you. Maybe I saw the clock when I looked up at you and realized it’s later than I thought. Maybe my mind was still on that tricky code that won’t work right.
            Or very possibly: I actually am irritated at your interruption…but given that you’ve already walked in and asked a question, the interruption’s already here, I’d still prefer to just get this over with now rather than being interrupted again 30 minutes from now.

          1. Extroverted Bean Counter*

            I think Alison’s advice about telling her directly to IM you first is good. That + saying “hey, now is not a good time for me. When you need something, please ask if it’s okay to interrupt first, okay?” will be good, clear guidance for how she should act.

            If you would be okay with a knock and a “is this a good time?”, then say so!

        1. Perpal*

          I think it’s a two way street. We have to learn to interact with each other to the best of our abilities, and I’m not sure folks with inability to read cues would barge in multiple times a day; wouldn’t you ask “is this a good time”? I do think it’s crappy to ignore someone in hopes they get the hint, that is my LEAST FAVORITE “communication” technique because I am left standing there wondering “should I go away or try harder?”. So that part is kind of crappy of the OP. On the other hand, I almost always ask someone “is this a good time to talk?” if they aren’t someone who is supposed to be reporting to me in some way; and also with reports too if it’s not urgent.

        2. Lynca*

          It’s still a 2 way street. I say that as someone with a neurological issue that also makes it difficult to read social cues. I know my limitations and it’s also up to me to tell people what I need in order to have a successful working relationship.

          If this co-worker has this issue, and it’s not clear that they do, it’s still up to them to tell people what they need. And for OP to explain they can’t drop everything instantly because of their work. You can’t accommodate if no one knows you need it.

          1. Scarlet2*

            Exactly. I don’t think it’s possible to definite a “universal” type of communication that will work for everyone. A direct style of communication is considered rude and offensive in some cultures, so if you adopt a direct style with everyone, you can end up offending someone. In general, it’s preferable to tailor one’s communication style to individuals. Like other commenters said before, it’s generally a good idea to start with a more subtle style of communication and become more direct if it doesn’t work…

            1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*


              More to the point, there’s a lot that can be done with indirect/nonverbal communication that can’t be done nearly so well with direct explicit words. Trying to act as though it’s always inappropriate, simply because some people, in some situations, wouldn’t understand them… that misses the point of this whole thing, I think, which is to say that this person in this circumstance needs to be handled differently.

      4. Cat*

        Are these even clear hints? Lots of people wear headphones and are fine being interrupted. (I did it for years). And waiting and then acting bewildered just means the person has to repeat it – not that they shouldn’t be there. Sure, most people would know not to come by 5-10 times a day. But let’s assume the person came by a more reasonable one. I wouldn’t figure out those hints and I’m fine at indirect communication.

        1. Koala dreams*

          Combined with the open door, the headphones don’t give a clear message after all. If you have a door, most people would assume that an open door meant you were open for interruptions, and a closed door means that you don’t want to talk. The headphones can be interpreted in a variety of ways, for example consideration for people with other taste in music.

        2. Mary*

          Yes, as I said above, everywhere I’ve worked the quid pro quo of bei able to wear headphones whilst working is that you’re still interruptable and available to answer colleagues’ questions. They’re by no means a universal indicator of “cannot be disturbed”!

        3. SarahTheEntwife*

          I do think the headphones are a reasonable cue that you need to explicitly get the person’s attention before starting to talk (unless the interaction isn’t going the way I picture it). I wear headphones a lot at work, as do most people in my office, and it’s *so annoying* when someone just starts asking me something without waiting for me to take the headphones off. I don’t even have the fancy noise-cancelling ones or listen to very loud stuff, but they’re a large, obvious indication that I literally am not going to be able to hear clearly if you talk to me.

        4. OP 1*

          The point with the headphones was just that she would need to get my attention before launching into a question.

      5. Bagpuss*

        MK, I think one issue is that “clear hints that any reasonably intelligent and aware person would get” is not easy to identify. One person’s clear hint is another’s unreadable body language / social cue.
        And, like a lot of things, if it is a skill you have, you almost certainly under-estimate how difficult it can be for other people or how difficult it may be to learn, and how much effort it may take to do it in the moment even if you are aware that it isn’t one of your skills and that you have tried to learn how to do it better.
        I get that it is frustrating if you think you have been clear, and someone doesn’t get it, but that doesn’t mean that the person now getting it is self-centred or obtuse, or that they think reading cues is beneath them.
        It’s more a case of they cannot see the cues. You wouldn’t give written instructions to a blind employee and then call them self-centred and obtuse for not reading them.

        I do think that it is helpful if people communicate more clearly. I am ware that I am not good at picking up on hints, and so I have a direct conversation with my reports where I tell them I am not very good at picking up hints, so if they have hinted and think I am ignoring them, the most likely explanation is that I have failed to read the hint, so they both can and should raise the issue more directly. And I explicitly explain that even if they happen to be wrong, and that *that one time* I was in fact hinting back that whatever-it-is isn’t going to change, I am not going to be angry that they have asked ‘again’ in a different way.

        In OP’s case, she needs to use her words because the other person either can’t understand her non-verbal cues or is ignoring them / doesn’t care, and it’s entirely possible that in this specific case, she is ignoring them because she wants to keep asking OP and it suits her to do so, but that doesn’t mean that every person who fails to pick up on hints is doing so deliberately.

        Also, I think people who find it hard to pick up on these cues are often embarrassed about it, as it seems to be a skill that you’re expected to have. These days, I’m old enough and have enough seniority that I feel comfortable flagging it up, but when I was younger and has less experience in working, it was a lot harder – I had less experiences to be able to work out whether it was me being ‘stupid’ or the other person being so subtle as to be invisible, and I was embarrassed about not understanding or about missing things so I would try to find work-arounds rather than asking directly for clearer communication.

        Don’t assume that things that are easy or obvious for you are easy or obvious for everyone.

      6. SubluxedMatrix*

        Hi, I’m disabled. I have a neurodivergency that makes reading body language and social cues more difficult for me than for ‘any reasonably intelligent and aware person’. Functionally, it’s a different language for me – I can read French/body language, but I’m slow and prone to far more major errors than someone who’s natively fluent. I’m not self-centred, obtuse, unwilling to try, or a child. I also wasn’t diagnosed until 6 months ago – before that, I didn’t know why I didn’t speak French when everyone else did – just that I was apparently incompetent no matter how much effort I put in.

        This comment was badly phrased and ableist – actually, I found it offensive – even if that wasn’t your intention. Whether the OP’s problem person has my disability or they’re just obtuse, tbh, isn’t relevant to the immediate situation. Hints, even ones the OP considers to be highlighted with neon dancing hamsters, aren’t working here, so a change in how they communicate with this person is part of solving their issue.

      7. Greta*

        “If you are not getting very clear hints that any reasonably intelligent and aware person would get, you are not simply not a mind reader, you are being self-centered and obtuse and not willing to develop the necessary skills.”

        Not always. Some people are genuinely unable to read nonverbal cues due to neurological issues. I am one of them. I only understand the words that are said, not the words that are implied. This is a skill that I will never be able to learn, because the part of my brain that processing nonverbal cues was damaged in a car accident.

    4. hbc*

      “even if we get the inkling that you’re hinting, we just might ignore it because we prefer clear communication.”

      That seems like the opposite of clear communication.

      It’s perfectly understandable that some people don’t pick up on hints. But if you *do* pick up on hints and you just don’t like them, the actual “clear communication” is to say, “FYI, I’m not great at responding to hints, so if the [slow ‘okay’/heavy sigh/watch-checking] is supposed to get me out of here, you’re going to have to be more direct. Seriously, just tell me to GTFO, I won’t take offense.”

      Otherwise, it’s like being bilingual and pretending you don’t understand the guy speaking Spanish to you, and hoping he’ll take the hint to switch to English. And at the risk of stretching this too far, being all “I know he didn’t like what he was doing but I didn’t stop because I don’t like how he said it” puts you in some really sketchy company.

    5. Washi*

      I’m confused by everyone being down on the OP for hinting when she set up a daily meeting and asked the employee to save her questions for then. That to me is a very clear message that coming in 5-10 times a day is NOT appropriate.

      Moreover, this is not the OP’s direct report! I can see why the OP was hesitant to be even more firm when the employee is already trying to throw her under the bus for “not helping.” Trying to change the behavior of someone you don’t manage is really tricky and is something lots of people struggle with.

      1. Bagpuss*

        I think it’s more “the hints aren’t working. When on e method isn’t working, try something else”

        OP has suggested daily meetings but hasn’t explicitly said “don’t interrupt me”
        She has sighed dramatically but she hasn’t said “I’m busy, come back in 10 minutes”

        Also – yes, managing someone if you are not their manager is hard, you have control over how you behave, yourself, and can change how you respond to the other person.

        (I think a lot of the comments have got into more general discussion about what is reasonable regarding non-verbal communication, as well as how it specifically pertains to the OP)

        1. OP 1*

          to be clear, I do not sigh dramatically, haha. I’m trying not to give her the idea that I’m annoyed that she’s asking questions, just that she’s ignoring the fact that she is interrupting without acknowledging.

          1. Close Bracket*

            Have you ASKED her to get your attention and wait for you to acknowledge her? Hinting isn’t working, so stop doing it. Use your words to get what you want.

      2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

        Not everyone picks up on common social cues. When you use hints to express yourself, it may not be clear to everyone what you want/need – you’re basically expecting people to read your mind, and the same hint from 2 different people may mean 2 different things.

        Changing someone’s behavior isn’t easy, but it starts by having an actual direct conversation with them, and telling them to stop the behavior in the moment, instead of expecting to understand your body language.

      3. TootsNYC*

        we’re saying that she’s relying too much on hints IN THE MOMENT.

        In the moment, she needs to be direct and clear: “This is an example of the questions I want you to save up for our twice-daily meetings. At the very least, save up until you have 3 of them.”

        “I can’t talk now, and you are supposed to save these for our check-in.”

        But I also think the OP should be putting much more focus on WHY she is interrupting, because if she can’t remember clear instructions from earlier, the performance PIP is not working.

      1. Amy Sly*

        Amen. I understand “I want to say something, but I don’t know a good script” questions (because good Lord am I terrible at coming up with the right words in the moment myself), but the number of “this person isn’t reading my mind so what should I do?” questions is rather amazing.

        If you want something from someone, ask. You may not know how to ask effectively, but the first step to resolving an interpersonal problem is to request what you want.

      2. Extroverted Bean Counter*

        That’s true, but it’s always really interesting to me to see because I think most of the LW’s really do think they have been using their words!

        Especially this OP, who said in the letter that they tried setting up daily meetings and asking the employee to save their questions for the meeting and still having that fail. That seems pretty clear cut, right?

        But it’s good then to have it pointed out that there are other words to be using. Like “do not come ask me questions outside of that time”. Or “I need you to ask me if I have a moment and wait for my response before launching into your question.” Those are much more explicit words than a lot of people would think to use and it’s helpful to know which words to use.

        1. Clisby*

          Or, “Outside of our daily meeting, if you have a question please email or message me. If I see that it can’t wait until the meeting, I’ll get back with you.”

    6. Not So NewReader*

      Thank you, FM!

      We see many, many letters with, “I am hinting but my person doesn’t get it.”

      This is a leadership, leadership requires the ability to change methods upon realizing one method is not working. OP, if you frame this as “part of the job” you may find it easier. With the privilege of being allowed to lead people comes the heavy responsibility of telling the people what you need them to do.

      Another framing I have found helpful is to tell myself if I do not inform Person that X is necessary, then I have failed that person. Now, they can respond to my message in whatever way they chose, all I can do is hope for the best. My responsibility is to deliver that message in the most digestible manner possible.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I love these two points:

        leadership requires the ability to change methods upon realizing one method is not working.

        if I do not inform Person that X is necessary, then I have failed that person.

    7. SubluxedMatrix*

      I’ve disabilities that mean I struggle far more with hints than might be expected, given that my communication skills in general are pretty good. When indirect or direct hints don’t work, and nor do hints that you think are the hint equivalent of neon flashing lights, please, for all our sakes, escalate to direct words – “I’m busy right now – It’ll have to wait for our meeting this afternoon” is perfectly polite and leaves everyone on the same page. Hints, to me, are no-information zones.

      Whether or not the interrupter has the same issues I do is, frankly, irrelevant. Hints aren’t working. Words are needed here.

    8. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I had a pretty unpleasant incident last year with someone who barged in with a question when I was concentrated on work not related to the question. I said all the right things – “Can you give me a minute to finish this?”, “Can you repeat the question, I was in the middle of something and didn’t hear when you started talking?”, “I actually don’t have the answer to this, but stick around and let me ask teammate X now”. Got the person their answer! They then shut the door, so there was two of us in an office with the door shut, and asked me repeatedly if I was having a bad day “or a bad week”. It was a man. I’m a woman. What did “are you having a bad week?” even mean in that context? The person then left and came back 15 minutes later with a new round of questions about whether I was having a bad day or whether I was offended. Would not quit until I told him “No I’m not offended and am not having a bad day, but you are really creeping me out right now.” I avoid that person, and especially 1:1 situations with that person, to this day. Any work interactions between us that can be done on the phone, gets done on the phone vs in person. My point is, I think it still is good to be direct, but you can never win if the other person does not like what you are saying to them. In OP’s case, if OP takes the being direct route, it seems that the employee will go straight to their management to complain about OP “not helping”.

      1. JimmyJab*

        Yes, I feel there are instances and situations where one can be direct. However, as a woman, I have been raised in a society where directness from a woman can and often is construed as hostility or anger, especially by men. I wish it was always acceptable to “use your words” and there would never be an repercussions from directness but in my experience, that isn’t how the world works.

      2. londonedit*

        Ugggggh that is the worst. When someone insists on asking you ‘What’s the matter?’ eighteen times, and you can’t say ‘I’m fine, nothing’s the matter’ because there is no way to say that without it sounding passive-aggressive, and by the fifth time of asking you really ARE annoyed, so then they say ‘See? I knew something was up! What’s the matter?’ ARGH.

      3. TootsNYC*

        “I’m not having a bad day. I am irritated at you that you interrupted me while I was concentrating and came into my office suddenly and without knocking. It messed up my train and thought, and I thought it was rude.”

      4. Arts Akimbo*

        Oh noooooooooooo– do you think he asked if you were having “a bad week” because us wimmens is extra-irritable at high tide? I see he went back to “bad day,” so maybe that’s not it, but my misogyny sense started tingling nonetheless.

        A person whose father used to ask his female students if they were having their period if they got a lower grade on a test than usual and thought he was being a pinnacle of enlightenment for attempting to take such things into account :(

    9. CatLadyLawyerEsq*

      Oh no no no no no no no. It’s called reading the room and every professional needs to learn to do it.

      1. Former Young Lady*

        This, thank you.

        Yes, people who lack self-awareness are the least likely to take a hint. Yes, there is still value in being able to tell if someone’s eyes are glazing over, or their inbox is creaking under its own wait, or they’ve held your hand twenty times today at the expense of their own productivity. “Some people struggle to read subtle cues” is absolutely true; “I ignore all subtleties because I think I’m too smart for them” is nonsense, and a sure recipe for loneliness.

        Grown-ups are expected to have learned a little grace. There’s nothing “direct” or “clear” about willful obliviousness to the needs of others.

    10. Clear*

      Dear “Clear communicators”,
      Stop assuming you are the only person in the world, your way of communication is the only correct one and everyone else is wrong and should be harmed until they acquiesce to your demands, and use your own words to do things like ask if someone has time because other people deserve clear communications and just marching into someone’s office is not actually clear communication it’s an assumption.

      Clear enough?

    11. Ray Gillette*

      There’s a difference between a person who’s acting in good faith but genuinely misses out on some indirect communications, and someone who ignores indirect communication when it suits them because they don’t like what they’re being told. People in the first category will appreciate it when you switch to direct communication with them, but people in the second will get mad and pretend you’re being rude. And often there’s no way to tell which category a person belongs to until after you try switching to direct.

  4. Nee Attitude*

    #1, I was expecting to read that you said something, anything, but maybe did not say it forcefully enough. But it doesn’t look like you’ve said one word to this person about their behavior. Her behavior is so blatant, I’d be surprised that she would decide to tone it down just because she saw you wearing a pair of headphones or staring intently at your screen. The kind of person who would pay attention to those types of cues would be a person who would never enter your office unannounced, and would give you all sorts of notice before they visited. You sound like that kind of person. Your coworker does not sound like that kind of person at all.

    1. Just Say It*

      “I’m busy with work right now. Please message or email me if you need something in the future and we will set up a time to discuss it”. No apologies.

      1. Zona the Great*

        I’m a fan of being even more direct to avoid gray areas. This person may hear “I’m busy right now” as an invitation to keep trying other times or playing the “how about now? How about now?” game which I’m currently dealing with with someone not even remotely related to me at work.

        I lean toward, “Please don’t come into my office with questions. Please IM me or call or email me to see if I’m available first. If you do have to come to my office for something, do not launch into a question or scenario until I’ve invited you to.”

        Not quite perfect language but this is my opinion.

        1. TootsNYC*

          also: “You must knock on the doorframe and WAIT for me to acknowledge you before you start talking to me–I’m busy and concentrating. That’s basic manners in the office, FYI, and I require it of you.”

          Then, like the parent of a toddler or teenager, if she breaks that rule, remind her, and send her away without any answer until later.

        2. AKchic*

          Maybe even a “email me all questions so you can refer back to it if you need to in the future” since she seems to have a problem with repeat questions.

  5. Maria Lopez*

    For OP#1 I think Allison is soft-pedaling her response. People like this person who don’t read social cues well need to be taught in concrete terms how to act and why. You cannot assume they will take any hints or even nice explanations.
    I have found that, fortunately, many people like this also don’t get insulted when you explain things to them plainly.

    So, the next time she comes in the office the OP should say that it is really rude to walk into someone’s office or up to their desk and just start talking. Tell her that she must first knock on the door and ask if she can come in and ask a question, and if the you are on the phone to wait until you have finished the call. No explanations about you losing focus or whatever. That is too much nuance.
    And if you have set up daily meetings with her, tell her that you will ONLY take questions at those meetings. No explanations, just the way it is.

    1. Observer*

      I disagree. Yes, be clear about appropriate boundaries, but telling her she’s being rude etc. is just a bad idea.

      1. Maria Lopez*

        She IS being rude, and she needs to know that. It is very likely that she does not understand that, as strange as that may seem to those of us who easily pick up social cues. Her own manager and the OP are probably the ones who CAN tell her this to impress on her why she cannot continue to interrupt.

        1. MK*

          Since the OP is not actually this person’s boss, she might need to handle this more circumspectly. I wonder if the OP was instructed to be more helpful when the employee tried to blame her for her performance issues. It would be better to go to her own manager and clarify what her role is.

          1. OP 1*

            It’s not really that I was instructed to be more helpful because her issues ARE my fault, just that I am trying to be more helpful so she can’t make the excuse. Manager isn’t blaming me.

            1. thethatcher*

              You need to make it very clear to your manager that you are not the problem here.
              I am not saying that you need to help this coworker to the point where she is successful (IMPORTANT!). Because that may not be possible if they are a poor performer without you taking on their workload. You need to have a conversation with your manager about this and tell them you are worried that [coworker] might be blaming you for performance issues because you aren’t helping her enough. Then lay out the reasonable system you have in place for helping [coworker], and ask if your manager has any concerns.

            2. AKchic*

              If management isn’t blaming you, I wouldn’t be wasting any additional time in “helping” her. I see any additional “help” as enabling her and delaying her potential managing out.

              This is probably not the right job for her, and by “helping” her, you’re dragging this out. It becomes a slow, painful issue, instead of a quicker termination and hiring someone who is a better fit. This person might be better suited elsewhere, and she’s not going to find that elsewhere while she’s still trying to make the current job work for her.

            3. NotAnotherManager!*

              Being more helpful does not mean giving less feedback, it means giving more feedback. If you approach it with an upbeat and collaborative tone and focus on what you can do, it makes it harder for her to complain. Treat it as a problem you’re solving together. You don’t want to be interrupted; she wants answers. Draw a picture of what that looks like, get her to agree, and then go back to that agreement the next time she does what you agreed not to do. If necessary, update your manager in the background so she has the documentation that you’re doing what you can to make her a success.

              Honestly, it sounds like she may not work out, but giving her every opportunity to succeed and keeping your manager in the loop as to progress will probably give you a better chance of getting rid of her, too.

        2. Susie Q*

          Telling someone they are rude is quite often just as rude. There are more effective means of communication.

        3. Lance*

          What she should know, in my opinion, is that she’s being disruptive; that, to me, is far more actionable and understandable (and less aggressive) than telling someone in a scenario like this that they’re being rude.

        4. Kat*

          I think since the OP has never had a direct conversation with the coworker it would come off really harsh to say “you’re being rude”. First step is to explain clearly what they want/need. If the interruptions keep happening then sure, the work “rude” could be dropped into the conversation. Or even “respect for other people’s time”. But to jump to rude when all the OP has done is dropped hints isn’t warranted IMO.

          1. KayDeeAye*

            I agree. The OP – with what sound like perfectly good intentions – is being far too indirect here, and what’s worse is that she truly seems to think that she’s being direct! And she so, so, so is not. So before escalating this with comments about rudeness, FIRST try being direct. Try saying what she needs in clear, polite and unequivocal words – no “hints,” no body language, but actual words. And if her report here of what she’s said and done is accurate, she hasn’t done that yet.

          2. OP 1*

            Tbh I’d disagree with the statement that I have NEVER had a direct conversation. Setting daily meetings and stating that they’re specifically so she can ask all of her Qs and review whatever is needed because it’s more efficient and because it’s easier on me than taking questions as one offs throughout the day isn’t exactly a subtle hint. No, I haven’t sat her down and said “please stop walking into my office and speaking without regard for whether I am available or at a point where I can listen,” but I’m not solely communicating with sighs here.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              The thing is — what you wrote in this comment right here isn’t direct. It’s an implication. It’s not a subtle hint, but it’s a hint.

              The “I haven’t sat her down and said…” language is actually what you need. I’m not sure if you’re not doing that because it feels rude to you, but it’s really not. It’s very normal.

              1. KayDeeAye*

                And it’s the *kindest* approach as well. Presumably this employee wants to do a good job, and presumably she also doesn’t want to annoy the heck out of you. So being really, really direct is better for everybody, really.

              2. Jules the 3rd*

                Even in the context of ‘She’s claiming that I am “not helping” her, and I want to avoid giving her any ammunition to support that claim’?

                I think OP’s softpedaled, yes, but I think there’s a reason for not behaving normally. The coworker is not behaving in a way that supports trust, or confidence that a normal action by OP will get a reasonable reaction from the coworker.

                OP – try speaking directly using suggestions / alternatives, like “Make sure you get my attention when you come in, and ask if this is a good time.” instead of “Don’t just walk in”. It is much harder to interpret that kind of request as ‘not helping’.

                1. Observer*

                  Yes. I’d say ESPECIALLY. Because then the OP can explain what they actually said and reasonable managers will understand that “Please hold that till our daily meeting” is NOT “Please don’t ask questions” and that “Please wait till I finish what I’m doing and acknowledge you before you start on your question” is NOT “Please stop asking questions” etc.

              3. OP 1*

                I agree, and I think what I meant here is that respondents are suggesting that she has no reason to have any idea whatsoever that she shouldn’t be doing this, and I wanted to point out that setting meetings and saying that it’s easier to get all her Qs at once is more than just “annoyed sighs.”

                1. KayDeeAye*

                  Oh, sure – I do get that at least some of your hints haven’t been subtle. :-) But they’re still hints, and this is a person who is not good at understanding hints. But just so you know, this personality quirk is common enough that it could easily happen again in the future, even with less problematic employees.

                2. Close Bracket*

                  You are doing more than annoyed sighs, and she still has no reason to have any idea whatsoever that she shouldn’t be walking in and starting to talk without waiting for you to acknowledge her.

                3. Avasarala*

                  FWIW OP I think your communication style would work with 90% of people, and everyone here is focusing on this one outlier and telling you to adjust your default style to accommodate her. Really I think you’re fine for most people and you just need to be more direct in this one case.

            2. miss_chevious*

              Since you’ve given her access DAILY, I would recommend resisting answering her questions at other times. If she comes at other times, defer her to the meeting time religiously. I had to do with with an employee who would just pop by with questions whenever she had them without regard for what I was doing or what she had done (or not done) to find the answer on her own, and after some redirection, she started following the process. And daily access allows you to counteract the critique that you aren’t available to her.

              1. TootsNYC*

                And daily access allows you to counteract the critique that you aren’t available to her.

                because remember that a capable worker should be able to function without frequent check-ins with questions.

                It’s not appropriate to offer more help than that; you’re holding her hand too much.

                And if she can’t, this is proof that she’s not improving the way she should be.

              2. Clisby*

                I worked at a place where one of the SMEs was in such demand for consultation that his manager ultimately put her foot down and said, “He’s available for X amount of time a week to help other people. You cannot speak to him without making an appointment. If you try to, he will tell you no. Once X amount of time is up, he’s not available. Go ask someone else.”

        5. NotAnotherManager!*

          Rude is a value judgment, and it’s not helpful here. It’s likely to offend coworker and won’t make OP1 look any better to her manager. OP1 needs to be clear and explicit about the best way for coworker to approach her, preferably as an overall approach, but it can be couched in terms of, “I’m in the middle of a deadline assignment, can I come and see you after I turn it in to Lucinda at 2:30? Thanks!” or “I am just slammed today, can you put this on the agenda for our meeting tomorrow morning?” in the moment.

          1. Maria Lopez*

            You and many other posters here don’t seem to understand that saying someone is being rude is somehow worse than saying someone is disruptive, or shouldn’t walk into the office and talk. This person is not taking hints or even mildly direct statements about her behavior. She needs to know, unequivocally, how this behavior is perceived. She will not be insulted or offended if she really isn’t aware that her behavior is offensive.

            1. NotAnotherManager!*

              You’re missing the point that many poster have made, then. Rude is subjective and nonspecific, and, since hints aren’t working, this person needs clear direction about what needs to happen in place of the disruptive behavior. There are no upsides to telling her she’s “rude” and a number of possible downsides. At the very least, giving her specific direction for handling questions that she refuses follow should be useful for HR documentation, even if it does not fix the random problem.

      2. TootsNYC*

        you don’t need to say “you are rude.”

        You say, “This is basic office etiquette, and you need to follow it.” That’s informational, not judgmental. Apparently she doesn’t know that’s basic office etiquette.

        1. TootsNYC*

          I sure wouldn’t start out that way–I’d start with, “Please knock first and wait for me to acknowledge you. I need to be able to switch my train of thought in order to actually focus on what you are saying.”

          But if this doesn’t work, eventually I’m going to explain that knocking is the standard and it needs to be done.

          Start subtle and escalate to directness if it doesn’t work.

    2. Confused*

      Sorry this is BS. Yes, long rambling questions are annoying and OP should kindly but firmly tell her she’s busy then, but this is work. Sometimes your coworkers need you to do shit even when you’re busy and they’re well within their rights to at least ask. Sometimes you can’t proceed with your own work until someone like OP answers a question or signs off. I don’t care if you’re busy because my boss doesn’t care that I tried and you said you were busy, this will still fall on me if you don’t do it, so I’m gonna ask you to do it, and no I won’t feel bad doing so, because we are all busy. If you are so busy you cannot be interrupted for even a question, either close your door or say outright, “I am busy, I cannot address this right now, but I can at X time.” Coworkers are not in the wrong for asking you work-related things at work.

      1. Oh So Anon*

        But they’re sort of in the wrong for not making a good-faith effort to be efficient communicators, or for having standards re: what efficient communication looks like that are far outside of their workplace’s norms.

        1. Confused*

          I’m not saying the coworker is 100% in the right. All I’m saying is that OP needs to clearly say “I am busy, we can talk about this at X time or at our meeting” not hope that this person will take the hint that she’s wearing headphones. And I get how annoying it is, I’ve had people interrupt me when I’ve had headphones in. But you have to use your words.

    3. Arctic*

      That seems really out of line. I don’t even think she’s being that rude. She’s never been told to go away. She doesn’t know the OP hates it. It’s an “open door” policy.

      OP should just say they are busy and can’t talk right now when they are busy and can’t talk. Not escalate to calling someone rude.

    4. Anononon*

      This comes across as very patronizing. As someone who sometimes doesn’t get hints (not sure if I would get OP’s in this case), if she decided to “teach” me how to act socially, I would be extremely taken aback and upset. Maybe there’s too much nuance in your comment for me to pick up, but I don’t need or deserve to be treated like a child.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        I’m not sure what your proposed answer would be, then. If you don’t read hints already, and you would object to having the issues explained to you concretely, then… what’s left?

        1. Koala dreams*

          I posted some examples of polite verbal communication in a comment further down. I’m sure they could be improved on, but hopefully they’ll give you an idea of what’s in between. There is a wide middle road between “only body language” and “blunt instructions”.

        2. Arctic*

          What’s left is just saying “I’m actually busy right now. I’ll grab you when I’m done.” “Oh, sorry I’m in the middle of something can we discuss at your meeting?”

          This is so normal. Just say you can’t talk right now.

          Calling her rude. And suggesting she must always knock (when that does not seem to be the culture of the office) is entirely out of line.

        3. Observer*

          I think it’s pretty simple – Provide clear and concrete feedback about what you need, not generalized commentary about people’s social skill, character etc.

          Telling people they are rude is generally not very useful, as well as being rude itself. Far more useful are the kinds of straightforward responses that many have already suggested like “I’m really busy now. I’ll get back to you later.” etc.

      2. Colette*

        Yeah, it’s one thing to say “When you come into my office, can you make sure I have time to talk before you start asking questions?” or “Can you send me an IM before you come over?” and it’s another thing to say “it is really rude to walk into someone’s office or up to their desk and just start talking”. The OP is not in a position to dictate etiquette.

      3. Librarian1*

        Anononon- There isn’t any nuance. It does come across as extremely patronizing. The coworker doesn’t need a lesson about being rude, she just needs to be told that she can’t keep interrupting the OP that many times a day. I saw elsewhere that there’s a worry that coworker might misinterpret that as meaning that she shouldn’t ever ask questions, so it shouldn’t be worded like that, but that’s the message that needs to be sent.

        1. Anononon*

          I know. :) That was a dig at “No explanations about you losing focus or whatever. That is too much nuance.”

      1. Important Moi*

        I trust you your response.

        But why would it matter if she’s insulted? Are there factors you haven’t provided?

        Also, look bad to whom? If the culture of you’re work place is people get to interrupt, can any response on this website help you?

        1. Well Then*

          I’m confused by this, too. I don’t see why OP needs to walk on eggshells for the benefit of one person who is already underperforming, causing issues, and blaming a senior employee for it (!!!). Of course it’s important to be kind and gracious, but this seems excessive. If you feel that you can’t set a professional standard because it will hurt someone’s feelings (and possibly they’ll act out as a result?), that is a problem.

          1. OP 1*

            I think there’s a lot of space between “walking on eggshells” and “telling an employee they’re being rude.”

            1. Well Then*

              That’s fair. I would never, ever say to someone “That’s rude.” It’s just not my style, even if true. My point was less about the wording suggested (my mistake! should have been more careful about how my comment nested), and more questioning whether you need to be so concerned with her being insulted. Some people are hypersensitive and would take anything as an insult; that in itself can be a workplace issue, and the solution isn’t to perfectly accommodate that person so they are never offended. In this situation, it seems like you are potentially being excessively careful with the feelings of a poorly-performing employee who needs more directness, not less.

        2. Welling*

          It’s generally a good idea to avoid insulting your coworkers, even the annoying ones. It’s just basic professionalism.

          1. Important Moi*

            No one is suggesting being unprofessional.

            Given that many of the comments have provided ways to approach the matter that involve engaging this co-worker, I don’t understand your comment.

            1. Welling*

              You asked “why would it matter if she’s insulted?” It matters because insulting your coworkers is not a good look. OP’s coworker sounds overly sensitive, but the desire to not insult her is an understandable one.

            2. Oh So Anon*

              I get it. Part of the challenges is that chances are everyone else is walking on eggshells with OP’s colleague and always has, which leads to a couple things:
              (a) OP’s colleague will interpret OP’s standards as being out of whack, because they haven’t heard that kind of feedback from anyone else (even if they have similar issues with her);
              (b) OP, in being far more direct than anyone else around them, will look out of step with office culture.

  6. AGuyinVa*

    Why are you “hinting”? Just say directly “You are to knock and wait to be acknowledged before you begin speaking when you enter my office.” Some version, explicitly laying the expected behavior.

    1. Myrin*

      Goodness, I can’t imagine any version of this that doesn’t sound high-and-mighty.
      Yes, OP’s coworker is annoying, impolite, and obnoxiously oblivious, and yes, OP should stop the waiting-and-hinting game and Use Her Words, but she isn’t summoning her peasant underling to royal court to make an example of her by publicly chastising her.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        Yeah the idea is right but that wording feels like it’s a scene from the Princess Diaries, trying to teach Anne Hathaway how to act. Just say you’re busy and/or need a minute!

        Some normal things people have said to me when I ask if they have time to talk (this employee is not asking, but just act like she has asked):
        *”Can you come back in like 10 minutes?”
        *”I’m in the middle of something, I’ll come grab you when I’m done”
        *”Give me just a minute to finish typing out this thought”

        And if they have daily meetings set up OP could also try something like:
        *”I’m actually working on something time-sensitive right now, can this wait until our meeting at 2?”

        1. Clisby*

          Yes, although in this case I think it would mostly be “can this wait until our meeting at 2?”

          I wouldn’t want to train someone to think I’ll be hastening over to talk to them the minute I finish what I’m doing. That’s not reasonable either.

    2. Susie Q*

      Yeah no. This is rude. I work in a fairly blunt and open workspace and this would be highly rude and unacceptable.

    3. Confused*

      Um that is insanely rude and if someone said that to me, I’d probably tell my manager that they were uncooperative. If you are busy, say “Sorry Jane, I am working on XX/I am very busy and cannot address this right now. Come back at XX time and we can talk then.” If she ignores that, then you can insist and request she leave, but any reasonable person would be fine with the first sentence.

    4. Seeking Second Childhood*

      My more casual version would be “Whoa hang on, I missed all that. I need you to knock when you get to the door, and give me a chance to note where I am in this project.”
      Then go back and make notes or finish the sentence you’re typing. If they start talking before you’re done, “No really, I’m in the middle of something, let me finish this thought.”
      When you’re ready, say “OK I’ve saved my place. What’s up, is this something I need to prepare for our 2:30 meeting?”
      Oh and if the question is something the person has been told is documented, cheerfully say “Isn’t it on the [$Department Teamroom]?” If she didn’t look, “Go look there. That should be your first step every time. If it hasn’t been updated, email the person who created the last version to get the schedule for the new version.”

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        Ditto – this is a good response with both positive suggestions for the coworker and immediate consequences.

    5. EventPlannerGal*

      Because that’s fucking rude. I mean, my god, is this how you talk to people? The OP can be direct without sounding like she’s trying to talk like the bad guy from a low-budget children’s cartoon.

  7. Observer*

    #1 – Use your words. Seriously. Stop with the hints and making a show of things.

    In addition to the language that Alison provided for the big picture talk, you can and should tell her when she is interrupting you or you need to finish something, etc. There is no reason you can’t stop her as soon as she starts and tell her that you can’t talk right now. She can either email you and you’ll get back to her, she can sent you a message on whatever messaging system you have and you’ll respond as you can, she can keep it for your scheduled meeting or you’ll get back to her later. You don’t have to give her all these choices – in fact I wouldn’t. I would give her one (or two) of them as you see fit for any given situation.

    Having some of this in email or your company messaging app would be a good thing. Since she’s trying to blame you for her performance issues, documenting the questions she’s asking you (especially if they are things she should know, or repetitions of the things she’s asked before) is a good thing.

  8. Observer*

    #2 – The read receipts are annoying. You might want to ask why GrandBoss wants them. But I don’t see how you get to decide that you are not going to give the boss what he wants. Generally, even if the boss is asking for something that’s not too reasonable, he’s the boss and gets to decide that. Of course the usual caveats about stuff that is illegal, dangerous etc. apply. But read receipts don’t seem to fall into that category.

    1. KayDeeAye*

      Yep, I agree. If that’s what the boss wants, that’s what the boss should get. The OP – and the rest of us – are free to consider this silly, so long as we don’t say so out loud.

      At least (if I’m reading this correctly) it will be his in-box that gets cluttered up, and if he’s OK with that, the OP should be, too.

      If I’m reading it incorrectly and he wants EVERYbody to use read receipts, well…yuck. But it’s still not worth an argument. Just delete the dang things and move on with your life.

    2. Massmatt*

      At least it’s better than the bosses we’ve read about here that demand to be cc’d on EVERY email.

      I can’t imagine what the boss hopes to accomplish with all these read receipts, but whatever, it’s his inbox.

    3. SheLooksFamiliar*

      Even when I’m feeling generous, read receipts are heavy-handed and controlling behaviors. I get it, sometimes it seems like emails go into a Black Hole or people have inexplicable amnesia regarding my email. I still don’t like read receipts.

      But I don’t like offending my grandboss, either. He asked for read receipts and will surely notice who doesn’t send them. I can think of far worse things a grandboss could ask for – haven’t we seen a lot of that here?! – so pushing back on this doesn’t make sense to me.

    4. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

      Dollars to donuts, the reason the GrandBoss wants them is he’s been burned in the past by people using the plausible deniability excuse of “Sorry, boss, I must have not gotten that email. Maybe the system glitched or it went into my spam folder.”

      1. Sara without an H*

        That was my thought, too. And the easiest solution is just to do it the way GrandBoss wants it done.

    5. Mr. Tyzik*

      Some vendor wanting me to sign up for conferences sends emails to my work address and requests a read receipt. Nope nope nope. I don’t bother signing up with that vendor and I can’t imagine what kind of read receipt load that vendor contact gets.

  9. Zaphod Beeblebrox*

    LW2 – depending on how many e-mails he sends out, and to who, he may well soon get fed up with all the receipts.
    (Just waits till he sends a companywide e-mail….)

    1. CM*

      Yeah. My attitude about this has always been that people who ask for 8 million read receipts DESERVE to get their inbox stuffed with read receipts. I’d click yes more than once, if I could.

      1. Kat*

        LOL glad I’m not the only one that thought of this. You want read receipts? Oh I’ll give you read receipts!

    2. Kimberlee, No Longer Esq.*

      But don’t read receipts often just come in the form of a check mark at the bottom of an email, not as a separate email of it’s own?

      1. KayDeeAye*

        When person A sends a read receipt, it’s a check mark at the bottom of an email. When somebody receives a read receipt (that is, they’ve asked to receive them), it comes as a separate email. At least that’s how it looks in my organization’s system.

  10. SusanIvanova*

    #1 It can take up to 25 minutes to get back into the groove if you’re interrupted while you’re concentrating on something. Software engineers know that if they drop by an office they should wait until the person they want to talks to gets to a stopping point before saying anything, and we’re not an industry known for our social awareness.

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        I’m a software developer too. I’m saying this sincerely, not sarcastically: I did not know our need for focus was nearly unique in the working world. I thought there were lots of fields where people need to focus.

        1. Richard Hershberger*

          I need to focus if I am drafting any but the simplest legal brief. They have a bunch of balls you need to keep in the air, bringing them down one at a time in the right order. Fortunately, I have a great boss. If he walks up to my desk and I say “I’m in the zone” he will walk away unless it is something truly urgent.

      2. SusanIvanova*

        The studies covered all kinds of jobs. Maybe it’s a spreadsheet, or working on a report, and maybe those don’t happen that often, but the results were pretty consistent.

    1. SarahTheEntwife*

      I’m genuinely curious on this and not saying it as a gotcha — how can you tell when someone is at a stopping point? Or is it that you discreetly wave or something and wait for them to acknowledge before actually starting the conversation?

      1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

        The easiest way for me is to use some sort of instant messaging system (Slack, MSTeams, whatever your office uses). Send the person you want to talk to a message, wait for a message saying it’s OK before walking over. Don’t feel ashamed about sending a message to someone who sits literally right next to you.

        This won’t work for everyone, but I can actually handle someone stopping by my desk to ask a quick “Do you have a minute?” without breaking my flow. Part of this is my neurochemistry (ADHD, medicated), and part of this is that when my answer is “No, not right now” the asker will walk away and I’ll follow up later. If the asker doesn’t respect a “No”, and the askee doesn’t follow back up, the whole thing will fail.

      2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        I would physically tap on the door, and wait for them to acknowledge me by making eye contact or saying something.

        Then I would say, “have you got two minutes to run over the schedule for this afternoon / can I pick up the file you wanted me to handle / do you want to be included in the coffee run” and if I need more than a quick reply I’d add “or shall I come back later?”

        So they get a chance to finish the thought they’re on the middle of, then assess whether they’ve got time to deal with me now, and an easy way to say “not now, Klink” without offence on either side.

        That said, the culture in my industry (4 jobs over 16 years) is very much that even a director would do even an office junior the courtesy of saying “are you busy?” before launching into instructions, and when people are truly undisturbable they shut the office door or block off a meeting room or whatever.

      3. SusanIvanova*

        Mostly the wait for acknowledgement part, and that’s not the brief “oh, you’re there” eye contact you get when you’ve knocked once – (looking at you, Marketing people who repeatedly wait maybe 10 seconds and then knock again!) – it’s the full turning away from the task and beginning a conversation.

    2. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

      Can confirm. I’m in a senior software developer role at my company, and I’m expected to help more junior developers when they have technical issues. This slows my own production down both by the time to get back into my groove, and the time actually spent helping. Fortunately, my boss is aware of this (because I have talked to her about it), and sets her expectations accordingly when assigning projects.

      OP #1 might want to make sure her boss is aware of how these interruptions affect her own productivity. Something like, “Boss, I’m happy to help Jane when she has questions about our work. But the time I spend helping her is time I’m not spending working on my own deliverables, so I want to make sure we’re on the same page about my expected output/completion date for the Rice Sculpting Audit.”

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          If your boss/her boss are aware of the situation, then I don’t understand why you are so insistent that you can’t tell her to ask questions later because she *might* misinterpret it as saying to stop asking questions. Stop worrying about how she will or won’t interpret what you say! You can’t think of that as being your problem. Just be clear and direct and if she tries to twist your words then you can explain the situation. It sounds like she has set a precedent that her trying to blame you for not helping is obviously untrue, so it’s unlikely they will believe her if she tries to claim you told her not to ask questions (which I still think is not something you should already be assuming will happen).

        2. TootsNYC*

          do you not trust your bosses to discern the truth about whether or not you are “helping” her, and whether her claims of being abandoned by you are accurate?

  11. cncx*

    I feel for OP1, i work in a front facing role so some of my job is being accessible and having drive-bys, but people have literally no social graces any more. When i have headphones on and am audibly talking on a conference call actively, people will still tap me on the shoulder and expect rapt attention. I agree with the people saying don’t hint, use your words, but in my case even when i use my words people have no effs to give about my time or what other tasks i may be doing. So yeah, i think OP1 should use their words to say they tried, but frankly my expectations of humanity are so low right now even when i use my words it doesn’t change people interrupting me when i’m obviously busy, working on a deadline, talking to someone else. I’ve used my words, people still think whatever it is they’re on is more important than whatever i am doing.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Oh, it’s one of my pet peeves to have someone stick around and keep talking after I’ve pointed out I’m on a conference call or webinar. (The standard throughout this office is to shake your head and tap the mouthpiece.)
      One guy didn’t get it, not ever. Even though I always followed up that gesture by muting the call, telling him I’m in a meeting with someone offsite and can’t talk now. Sometimes he stuck around like he was waiting for me to be done!
      I even pointed out my huge ear-protection headphones and said “When I’m wearing these feel free to interrupt me, it’s just music. But when I’m wearing the PC phone, I’m on a call and need you to email me instead.”
      Before he left the company, I was starting to imagine headphones with a little flag that popped up when you got on the call that said “COME BACK LATER” in huge neon letters.

      1. SubluxedMatrix*

        My boss spends a lot of time in conference calls, and the way she handles overruns really threw me for a loop when I started here – I’m to come into the room and wait while she finishes up her call, and she’ll jump between me and them. I really feel like I’m intruding – don’t interrupt people who are obviously otherwise engaged is one of social rules I’ve managed to nail!

        With my team, I wear massive noise-cancelling headphones at my desk (open plan offices are fabulous for productivity), but I’m generally open to interruptions. We had a team discussion about focused working, and I have an octopus holding a little sign that says ‘focus!’ that sits on top of my monitor when I really don’t want to be interrupted – I’m now making distraction-shielding octopuses for the rest of my team.

  12. Lexin*

    LW1 – are you sure the member of staff doesn’t have some kind of problem with indirect communication? I’m thinking here of a Aspergers or something like that, which makes it hard to pick up on hints? If so, you might have to be more direct, as the other commenters say.

    1. Kat*

      I don’t think we should be making assumptions about what’s wrong with the coworker. All we need to focus on is the OP has only hinted and hints don’t work. The reason doesn’t matter. The next step is to simply be direct.
      I don’t have Aspergers but my first professional job after graduation I used to pop into the Partner’s office to ask questions. I honestly look back on this and am surprised and embarrassed by my behaviour. I don’t know why common sense eluded me. Maybe because we all worked in cubicles and no one ever asked us if it was ok to talk to us underlings so I just mimicked that behaviour without consciously thinking about it. But what I hate is that the Partner never came out and told me to knock first. Instead he told my supervisor to tell me. Like WTAF? This guy was the most verbose person I’ve ever met and would use 20 words where 7 would suffice but he couldn’t tell me “please knock and let me tell you if I have a minute before you come in and ask a question”?
      But once I was told, I never forgot it and carried that with me through every other job I’ve ever had.

    2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      That is irrelevant. The OP has never had a direct conversation with the employee and expects them to read their mind. THAT’S the problem, not a perceived medical condition.

      1. Lance*

        Please don’t just put all the blame on the OP for this (as it sounds to me like you’re doing). They’re setting daily meetings with this co-worker and encouraging them to direct their questions to said meeting; sure, it’s not being as direct as they could be, but it’s also something a whole lot of people would pick up on (plus the general annoyance, mentioned elsewhere, of immediately going into the question without so much as a pause or a look).

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          No one is putting all of the blame on the OP, but the coworker did not write in and isn’t reading this comment thread so saying all the things she should do differently won’t help anyone. All we can do is suggest what the OP can do differently.

        2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

          OP is not being direct AT ALL. Employee’s behavior is not acceptable, but they don’t know this because a clear and direct conversation hasn’t been had.

    3. Observer*

      I don’t think that this is at all useful. The OP has not once, according to their own description, actually told this person what they need. That’s something that a LOT of people, even ones who are absolutely neuro-typical and don’t have any especial problems with communications, are going to miss.

      The OP’s next steps don’t require any sort of speculation about the employee’s disabilities or lack thereof. Going down that rabbit hole is a waste of time and likely to create its own set of problems.

      1. Mr. Tyzik*

        I hate when this stuff gets chalked up to neuroatypicality.

        The reason this person continues with the behavior is because OP has not asked the person to stop. OP admits leaving hints, opting out of direct instruction.

        OP, sorry, but this is on you. This person keeps doing this because you’ve never established that boundary firmly.

    4. Tau*

      Agreed. What I think is also not obvious to many naturally socially skilled people is that the costs of learning these things can be tremendous. I managed to learn social skills to a point where I think I no longer come across as obviously socially maladept, just a little awkward here and there. Along the way I also managed to give myself depression, social anxiety, and do permanent damage to a bunch of necessary life skills because I funneled energy from them into the social stuff and it became automatic to the point where I couldn’t stop it.

      1. Tau*

        I have no idea why this ended up here, especially because what I was trying to comment was “armchair diagnosing is against site rules.”

  13. Czhorat*

    For OP2, one issue with read receipts is that they create an expectation of immediate response. If you don’t have time to respond immediately (or don’t want to), you can quickly fire back a reply saying, “So noted. I’ll get you an answer on this later today after I wrap up some other commitments”. This way it doesn’t feel to him as if you’ve read it and are ignoring it, but it also keeps non-urgent things from too deeply impacting your workflow.

    1. WorkingGirl*

      Ugh, I *hate* sending non-reply replies like this. Can’t you just trust that I will send an actual response in a timely manner?

      1. Link*

        If its something that is going to take more than a day or so for you to send the actual response, letting the person know that you received the message and you’re working on it can be helpful. It takes 30 seconds to write a response that says you’ll get back to them later. That hardly seems hate-worthy.

        1. Oh No She Di'int*

          I mean . . . maybe. The problem with sending the non-response responses is that that sometimes triggers a whole new volley of emails in the vein of “Oh, in that case, let me get so-and-so’s input first and I’ll get back to you,” or “Well, can I just get part X right now and save the rest until later?” or “Well, if you’re working on the Z Report you can set that aside to get to this.” All of these can become disruptions to varying degrees.

          This doesn’t always happen, but you’re taking a gamble that it might.

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            But in those examples it seems even *more* important to send that quick note! If not getting an answer from you quickly means they need to follow up with someone else instead, then it’s good to let them know they will not be getting an answer from you quickly!

      2. MCMonkeyBean*

        Emails get lost or buried all the time, and there’s usually no way of knowing how much stuff the person you’ve emailed has on their plate before they will have time to get to your question, so no it’s not generally a good idea to just trust that people will get back to you with an answer eventually.

        Sending a quick note saying that you saw the message and giving an estimate of when you expect to have an answer is good business etiquette. I received comments in an year-end review that my email communication needed improvement and the next year my boss was pleased with my improvements–which were basically just sending those quick notes, and adding occasional exclamation points so that my emails didn’t come across so terse.

    2. KayDeeAye*

      I think you’re right, Czhorat, up to a point, but I don’t think that will happen here, at least not for very long. Unless this is a very small company, this man is going to be getting so many read receipts that he’s not going to be able to keep track of who’s read what. Because with anything other than a very small company, those read receipts are going to breed like mosquitoes. So I don’t think the OP has to worry about this expectation until the number of read receipts is winnowed down to a workable number – e.g., when the boss starts using them only for a few specific and targeted emails.

    3. Quill*

      Honestly though sometimes that makes things worse… I often have to open up an attachment, then check through my files, to get an answer, and firing off a reply can hide the attachment from me in our email system!

    4. Lucy P*

      Not sure what email client OP2 is using, but I see that Outlook has an option in its rules manager to reply to emails from specific persons with specific templates. Wonder if OP could create a quasi read receipt template just for replies to grand boss.

  14. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

    OP3, in addition to AAM’s excellent advice, you can address management style in a panel interview, but it depends on how good you are at reading non-verbal cues (not a skill everyone has). I have been in your exact position before (escaping toxic boss, panel interview format) and asked the whole panel, “What is the overall leadership style and management culture of the agency/office/department?” with follow-up question(s) to the hiring manager about their vision of what a successful team member would be and what their preferred managment style is. Then pay really, really close attention to the other panelists and their non-verbal cues when the hiring manager answers.

    1. Faith*

      Yeah–honestly, I’d trust the reactions in a panel interview more than a one-on-one. If there’s something up with the management culture, *someone* is going to have a reaction that signal that, because not everyone is good at masking that kind of reaction in the moment. Whereas in a one-on-one, it can be a lot easier to obfuscate.

    2. Ali G*

      This is a really good point. If I was on an interview panel with my former boss and this was asked, anything from her that wasn’t “I am a complete and utter micromanager, I have no interest in learning about the job I am supposed to do and I will keep you guessing from day-to-day about what your actual job is” would definitely elicit some sort of visual cue from me. Heck, if I liked the person enough, I might even do it on purpose to say “RUN!!”

    3. TootsNYC*

      with follow-up question(s) to the hiring manager

      I’ve never been on a panel job interview, but I’ve been on a panel.
      And it’s totally kosher to direct a question to one specific person that only they can answer.

  15. Koala dreams*

    #1 It’s very interesting to read this question after the question about the quiet/chatty office in the other post recently, since your co-worker is exactly the kind of chatty co-worker people were complaining about in many of the comments. In a way, you are the counter-part to the letter writer for that question.

    That being said, I don’t get why you won’t say anything to your interrupting co-worker. There are a wide middle road between “communicating only by body language / pantomime” and “very blunt verbal commmunication bordering on rudeness”.
    You can use polite language, for example:
    “Sorry, I’m busy right now, let’s talk later”
    “Oh, you scared me there, I didn’t see you come in. As you can see, I’m on a phone call and don’t have time for chatting right now. See you later!”
    “Can that question wait for our daily meeting? I’m busy right now.”

    You can also bring up how much time this mentoring thing is taking with your boss, and ask how they want you to handle this. Maybe they’ll want you to focus on other work, maybe they want you to put aside your normal work and spend more time on mentoring. There are some earlier posts about how to prioritize when you have too much work to do that could be useful for you to read.

    1. EventPlannerGal*

      I don’t think the LW from yesterday was doing anything like what the LW describes here.

  16. Confused*

    OP 1, in the words of Panic! at the Disco, haven’t you ever heard of closing the g*d damn door?! My former roles have required me to go to people’s offices to ask for things (not long-winded questions, but deliverables) and trust me, I don’t want to be there bugging you just as much as you don’t want me to be there, but we have to get sh*t done sometimes and I can’t do my part until you sign off or answer a key question. I’m sorry to bother you while you’re busy but you’ve ignored my past three emails so I have no choice but to come over, otherwise, my boss will get on me. I wouldn’t open a closed door, and I wouldn’t ignore hints, but sometimes when you need something, you need something.

    1. MsM*

      Well, but in those cases, it helps to open with, “I’m really sorry to bother you, but it’s urgent/time-sensitive,” and then getting to the point as quickly as possible. LW’s coworker doesn’t seem to be doing that, and it’s a lot harder to coach her in those skills than it is to tell her, “I’m not sure you realize this, but if I have my headphones on, it’s because I need to focus. Can you come back during check-in?”

      1. Confused*

        That’s totally fair – but OP is not saying that, which is the problem. There is nothing wrong with saying “I’m busy, come back later” but all of these hints and looks and just magically hoping she gets it is helping no one.

  17. hbc*

    OP4: I feel your pain. If you know how hiring works and would never send an *unprompted* inquiry like this, it stings to follow their directions and then be smacked down like you were some rube who tried to gumption your way in and can’t find the Careers link on their website. But it’s 100% not personal, and I would try to drop the “offended” and stick with “annoyed.”

    I can’t say I recommend it, but I might send an email saying, “Thanks for the information. I’m sorry to have bothered you, but there’s a LinkedIn posting that encourages emailing HR even when there aren’t jobs posted. I’ll just continue to keep an eye on the website in the future. Best regards, hbc.” It has the risk of coming off as “I’m not dumb, it’s your fault!” (because really, that’s what I mean, maybe without the exclamation mark), but I might have trouble letting go of it otherwise.

    1. cmcinnyc*

      I work in a place that has a lot of pluses, but we are terrible at the mechanics of hiring. That we have so many good people is miraculous, given that we mess up in every way you’ve ever seen on AAM. This is exactly something we would do. Someone would think “We need an open door policy! It will encourage diversity! We don’t want great people to pass us by!” But there will be no policy, support, or method to handle the inevitable approaches by candidates this attitude will encourage. Responses will be random. Some will be snarky. Some will be dismissive. Some will be enthusiastic and waste your time spectacularly interviewing you on a get-to-know basis with no job available to offer. All to say–don’t bother to follow up. There’s no one driving the bus at places like this. Once you go to your new town, you may find a way to connect and get to know more about this company, and you can keep an eye on the website. But know that they stink at hiring so very few eggs go in this basket.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I wouldn’t do that. I’d just move on, and apply if ever a job came open. Or seek out staffers on LinkedIn and see if there’s any sort of connection I could make, and do some cold-networking (“Hi, I worked at Counterpart and have moved to the city; we have similar jobs. Can I buy you lunch to pick your brain about the job market in this new city?”)

    3. OP4*

      OP4 here, thank you, I’ll try to mentally reframe my thinking to annoyed rather than offended. I think I could be a bit short fused here as I am really upset about leaving my previous job (which was amazing now) to follow my spouse to a new province for his new job. I’m trying not to put all my eggs in one basket here, but getting a job with this company would basically be the perfect fix for my job-related sadness.

  18. always in email jail*

    OP1- I think the daily meetings were a good idea. Stick with those, and be forceful about saying “I’m working on something right now, I would be happy to discuss it at our 2PM”. “Well I-” “I really need to wrap this up before we meet, we’ll have time to get into it at the 2PM” and focus on your computer and ignore her.
    I know this is difficult because you don’t want to give her any ground to continue to blame you, but asking someone to wait a few hours isn’t unreasonable. If it’s truly a simple question you could have answered in 5 seconds, then it’s something simple enough for her to figure out on her own.

    1. Extroverted Bean Counter*

      Yes, the daily meetings are a good idea – just be really strict and enforce that time as The Only Time. “Hi, I see you. Please write your question down and bring it to our meeting if you haven’t figured it out by then.”

      Hopefully OP1 knows whether or not these are time sensitive, only-answerable-by-them things. Are there training materials the employee should be referencing instead? Other people to be asking? Google? If the employee doesn’t need the answer right the hell now and OP1 isn’t the only source of that information, then I think it’s more than okay to really push back on the interruptions and only answer outstanding questions during the meeting time.

      Once the employee gets used to taking more initiative and being more self-sufficient OP1 can probably relent on the “no outside-meeting questions” rule, because they’ll hopefully be able to trust that the employee would only be asking if they really, really needed to.

    2. Senor Montoya*

      If need be, you can get up and walk her to the door, say politely but firmly “I’ll see you at 2” and then gently shut the door.

      You can put a note on your door — “working, please knock!” or “Deadline! do not disturb!”

    3. SubluxedMatrix*

      This is something I meant to pick up on, but got distracted by the communication styles discussion – is OP1’s problem person using her as a crutch, rather than having to think herself? If so, pushing her to hold off on pestering OP1 becomes even more useful/important for both of them.
      PP is having performance issues, and rather than trying to fix them, they may have glommed onto OP1 as the Source of All The Answers, rather than doing her own thinking and potentially getting it even more wrong – except this way, they’ll never actually improve, because PP is not learning to do better. And presumably, they get irritated when OP1 refuses to divulge on command, because they don’t know what to do and OP1 does, and then and then and then……

  19. J*

    LW1 – You don’t walk into someone else’s office without permission. Even if I have an appointment to speak to someone, I stop at the door and wait for them to invite me in. That’s like basic etiquette. I know schools don’t usually teach this kind of thing, so LW1 needs to make it explicit. “I know you aren’t familiar with this, and that’s not your fault, but standard office etiquette is to wait at the door until you are given permission to enter.”

    1. Bagpuss*

      I think the problem with that, is that it *isn’t* standard office etiquette. It might be the standard practice in your office, but it definitely isn’t a general rule.

      1. Link*

        I agree. I don’t think there is a standard for what open door policy really means. OP can certainly express her preferences, but not in a way that makes her preference sound like the only correct way to do things.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          To me, “open door policy” means “you can come see if I’m available any time; you don’t have to make an appointment or go through your direct supervisor first.” But it does not mean “I will always be available to talk at a moment’s notice.”

        2. MCMonkeyBean*

          Yes, exactly. Don’t instruct her like you’re teaching her how offices work, just tell her the best way to communicate with you specifically! “Just so you know I’m often in the middle of something and find it difficult to keep my thoughts straight when you pop by so regularly with a question; if you could try to save up anything non-urgent until our 2pm meeting I would really appreciate it”

      2. TootsNYC*

        I do think it’s standard etiquette to not just walk in and start talking.

        It’s basic to wait to be acknowledged in some way. Sure, some people don’t, but they are the exception to the rule, and it is NEVER wrong.

        1. Bagpuss*

          Yes, but J was taking about not going in at all, which seems way more unusual & rigid.
          I agree that its normal to wait to be acknowledged before leaping right in.

    2. OP 1*

      Didn’t mention this but she’s actually older than me and has been working longer, so even though she’s lower level I’m not sure I have the cred to educate her on office etiquette like that.

      1. it's me*

        That adds a weird wrinkle. I would have assumed this was a younger and more inexperienced person.

      2. Mary*

        In that case, try and frame it not as “this is a matter of professional etiquette” with an undertone of “I can’t believe you don’t know this already, ugh”, and more as, “This is my weird quirk, but please do the thing like this! Thanks so much!”?

      3. Senor Montoya*

        Yes, you do. Age has nothing to do with it. You’re higher up the food chain, that’s what counts.

      4. Chronic Overthinker*

        And maybe that’s why they feel they can just start talking and hope you respond, regardless of the circumstances. I would just be polite and professional and give them your preferences for how you like to be contacted. Drop the subtlety and be direct and professional.

      5. Kat*

        Don’t think of it as educating her on office etiquette. Just think of it as you’re establishing boundaries with her because you are the one that is helping her. A reasonable person will learn this is likely etiquette for most offices. But if she doesn’t, you don’t care what she does with other people in other workplaces. You just need her to stop doing this to you. Therefore you have enough standing to talk to her about it.

  20. 7310*

    Clarify #2 for me please? Is the boss is expecting a written acknowledgment for each email instead of an auto-generated notification?

    If auto-generated, employee is not getting the receipts. The boss is. And if boss wants employees to do same, employees can set up rules to have receipts sent to their own folder and never have to see them.

    If the boss wants personal acknowledgment, that is another story and Alison’s advice stands.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      When someone requests a read receipt from me, I have to click something that says to either send it or not. I assume you can change that setting so receipts are sent by default, but if you don’t want to do that (and I can think of good reasons to not do that), it means a step is added to the reader’s task.

  21. Mary*

    OP1, have you clarified for *yourself* what you want her to do, before you speak to her? You’ve got a lot of things that are generally annoying you here:

    – she interrupts when I’m thinking
    – she starts talking without waiting for me to acknowledge her
    – her questions are longwinded and rambly
    – she comes in way too often

    All of these things sound legitimately annoying, but you can’t rely on huffy noises and headphones to communicate to your colleague what you want her to do instead!

    Think about the following:

    – would it be OK to interrupt if she knocked, waited until you looked up and then asked a concise question?
    – how many times a day?
    – are there some questions that can definitely wait, and others where you would be willing to answer straight away?
    – do you just want her to save all her questions for the meeting?

    Once you have clarified what change of behaviour you’d like to see, there is nothing wrong with politely but directly asking! And it’s also OK to reinforce the behaviour by referring back to it: “As I mentioned when we talked the other day, this is the kind of question that I’d like to discuss in our daily meeting. We’ll talk about it then!”

    Right now, she is annoying you, and she may not even realise that–or she does realise, but has no idea what aspect of her general being is annoying you or what she can do to fix it. She may adjust completely easily to your way of working once she understands it–lots of people do! Alternatively, she may *hate* it–but that’s not necessarily your problem! If you have senior standing you are entitled to cause some mild inconvenience to staff lower in the hierarchy to avoid inconvenience to yourself: that’s really OK!

    Either way, there is no point prolonging this situation where she’s either annoying you but unaware, or annoying you but has no idea how to fix it. Take control by figuring out what you actually want her to do, and then tell her.

    1. OP 1*

      This is good advice, thank you — part of why I have been so hesitant to say something like “let’s save all questions for the meeting at 2 because I have work to finish” is because, as I said above, she’ll interpret that as “I can’t ask questions” or “I can’t get help” and just do her work wrong, which impacts me — so for the sake of work product I’ve been hesitant to go beyond hints and have hoped that I could use some body language to just get her to, at a minimum, wait for me to look up before launching into a q.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        If you haven’t yet said that she should save her questions until a bit later, how do you know how she will interpret it?

        If you put it in an email then you will have in writing that you told her she could ask questions, just to wait a bit first. It’s not clear though from your letter whether when she tried to blame you for not helping her enough if that actually caused issues for you or if her manager knows that you’ve been extremely available (for what it’s worth I’ve never heard of anyone having a standing daily one-on-one meeting with someone who is *not* their manager so any outside party should hopefully see from that that you have certainly been helping her far beyond what she is claiming)

        1. KayDeeAye*

          Yeah, I think, OP, that you’re letting your (perfectly understandable) irritation make decisions for you here. I am sure you’re right that she often misinterprets things, but that doesn’t mean that she misinterprets everything. So just be really, really clear: “This isn’t a good time, but I’ll come by your desk as soon as I finish this. OK?” Then go by her desk, just as you told her you’d do.

          Maybe she will misinterpret this, but she’s already misinterpreting your hints and body language, she’s already struggling, she’s already driving you crazy – and it sounds like she’s not very happy either. So how much worse can it be?

      2. Arctic*

        You really can only manage her unreasonable responses to you to a small extent.

        If you are polite (unlike some suggestions here) and make sure any reasonable person wouldn’t take it as a dismissal then you are covering yourself. If she thinks these are questions she has to have answered before the meeting or maybe in preparation for the meeting (even if from your POV that is not necessary for your meeting) then you can suggest her sending you an email with them.

        If she claims you aren’t being open or responsive you can honestly say that you were polite and open to questions but you also had to focus on your own work.

      3. Mary*

        >>she’ll interpret that as “I can’t ask questions” or “I can’t get help” and just do her work wrong, which impacts me

        Two possibilities here:

        – your general irritation with her and the fact that she’s performing poorly on several scores is making you jump ahead to anticipate problems which actually aren’t there, or
        – you are correct and she cannot take clear instructions, in which case, I really think you need to be clear, let her fail, and then escalate the problem to her manager or someone more senior.

        “how can I hint more obviously” is not a winning tactic, though!

        1. KayDeeAye*

          “How can I hint more obviously” is kind of genius phrasing! Rightly or wrongly, that is kind of the impression the OP is giving here.

          I mean, I get it. I think most people would get the OP’s hints, and it’s unfortunate (and oh, so irritating) that this employee is not. But until it becomes a performance issue, it’s much better to treat it as a well-intentioned habit that you’d like this person to break – and also to give the employee the clear direction she needs to break this habit.

          KayDeeAye (who learned this lesson the hard way!)

          1. OP 1*

            That’s definitely the impression I’m giving — and I get that it comes off as silly! But sometimes there are scenarios where you just can’t be as direct as you want to be, because your workplace is weird, your employee is vindictive, you aren’t their manager, you’re worried about your reputation, etc. This isn’t 100% one of those scenarios, but it’s definitely one where there’s enough going on that I would’ve preferred to avoid a direct conversation if possible. Is that ideal? no. Should people strive to be more direct and not “passive aggressive” at work? of course. But sometimes that’s not realistic.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              But the thing is, you’ve exhausted all the indirect options and they’re not working. You wrote in to ask what else you should do, and the answer is that you need to clearly tell her what you want her to do differently. That’s really the only answer; there’s no magic wand that will make her get it without you telling her directly. If you don’t want to do that, then you’ve got to live with the current situation.

              If you’re concerned about your boss, then you talk to your boss about how you plan to handle this and make sure she’s on board. But there’s no other solution here to get what you want without being direct. The hints haven’t worked.

              1. Mr. Tyzik*

                Thank you, Alison. This comes down to being direct.

                OP, this person is not a mind reader. Tell her what you want. How she interprets that is another issue and you manage her on that. Stop hinting.

            2. KayDeeAye*

              Your choices are to continue doing what you’re doing (hinting), which isn’t working, or to try something new (being direct) and see if that helps. I don’t see any other options here. I’m so sorry if neither of them work for you! I truly cannot see how “I’m sorry – I’m in the middle of something here. I’ll come by your desk in about 20 minutes” can hurt your reputation. (I don’t even see how it would annoy the employee, honestly.) But if it can and it does, then maybe your biggest problem is your management, not this employee. Because that’s just nuts. Best of luck to you!

              1. Koala dreams*

                I’m also getting the impression that the communication problems with the co-worker is just a red herring. It’s funny how a problem seems so clear from the beginning, and then when you read the follow-up comments is actually something quite different.

            3. Jules the 3rd*

              So, focus on what you can do:
              1) Make the meetings more effective.
              – Make sure she’s writing down the answers
              – Ask her to paraphrase the answers back to you
              – Tell her when it’s a repeat and ask her what her notes say about it
              2) Track the question frequency and quality, so that you have data to assess whether she’s improving or not, and to show your boss
              3) Use alternative positive suggestions instead of negative
              – ‘Could you knock so that I know you’re there (polite tone)?’ not ‘Stop interrupting so often’
              – ‘Can you work on something else until we can address this in the daily meeting?’

              Good luck, this is a needle to thread, because Office Politics. Which sucks, but is real. Your audience is not just coworker, but also the managers she’s complaining to.

            4. Important Moi*

              I understand this for #reasons.

              I would counter that sometimes one can get so deep in one’s own head, we assume any action to address our situation would be perceived as “bad” so we do nothing that actually addresses the situation no matter how mild or inoffensive it could be. You may be doing a little of that.

        1. TootsNYC*

          her interrupting you with long, rambling questions is not a separate problem; it’s a symptom of her basic incompetence (I’m assuming that you have given her good instructions).

      4. Koala dreams*

        Reading your comments, it seems to be the problem is not about how to communicate, and more that you want your co-worker to NOT get the message and at the same time to GET the message. That’s just not going to happen.

        If she interprets “I’ll have to wait (however short) to get an answer” to mean “I can’t get help”, then it doesn’t matter if you convey that first message with pantomimes, indirect hints, coded notes sent by carrion pidgeons or whatever.

        1. Koala dreams*

          What I’m trying to say is that if your co-worker is going to be angry about the content of your message, it doesn’t really matter to your co-worker if you use hints or are direct, since they would be angry anyway. I would still recommend you to use polite verbal communication, since it’s the socially accepted way to communicate with co-workers and will look better to other reasonable people in your office. If your boss isn’t one of the reasonable people, well, that’s a hard problem to solve, and it’s not going to be solved by any communication with the co-worker in question.

      5. Nee Attitude*

        Your definition of success should not be “she never reacts negatively to what I say.” You can’t ever control her reaction.

        Your definition of success should be “I clearly communicate to her what I need and I verify that she understands what I have asked.”

  22. Not So NewReader*

    LW1. It jumped at me that she is trying to blame you for her problems. Here you are trying to get her to stop bugging you yet the stage is set that she must bug you in order to retain her job. Some where along the line she got the idea that as long as she is asking you questions she still has a job.

    Not what you asked, but I think you need to look at the next layer of this situation.

    Why isn’t she asking her direct supervisor?
    Does she ask the same question more than once?
    Does she ask variations on the same question?
    Did she have a trainer?
    Does she have manuals to refer to?
    Are her questions in line with what most people would ask if they were new to the job, or if they had been on the job a while?

    So far what I see here is her plan to keep her job is to drive you batty with a constant parade of questions. Then she has you over a barrel because she can claim you did not help her. wth. I have never had a job where I expected a higher ranking person to be responsible for MY own ability to do a job. The best light I can see here is that this is a person who feels they received poor training or no training. In worst case scenario, I see that this could be a person who is a bad fit for the job.
    I think her immediate supervisor needs coaching. I think she needs to have some boundaries set for her. And I think you could learn to be comfortable with your own boss voice. Practice in front of the mirror. Get used to the sound of your voice saying, “Please email me and we will schedule an appointment to speak.” Yes, this is a thing. We have to get used to hearing ourselves tell other people what to do. I literally spoke to my bathroom mirror when I was home alone and practiced saying instructive things to people. It does not take forever to do this. Even a few minutes each day can make a difference.
    “Please write down all your questions and we will review them at 3 pm.”
    “Please knock before entering.”
    “Please ask if I am at a natural breaking point, before you start speaking.”

    My boss and I both say to each other, “Let me know when you can talk.” or “Let me know when you are at a natural break in your thoughts.”

    1. OP 1*

      This is good advice and the performance stuff is definitely being addressed separately — a lot of the Qs are things she should already know and should figure out herself, but if she can’t, it makes sense that I’m the person for her to ask. And yes, it is frustrating that I have this extra obligation to be helpful so she can’t say I’m not being helpful, but higher ups are aware of this dynamic.

      1. Jellyfish*

        Seems like you’re in a position where you can’t win. Whatever you do or don’t do, either she disrupts your works, she gets offended, or she blames you for her own issues.
        I’d be inclined to do whatever works best for me and then deal with the fallout. There’s going to be fallout no matter what you decide, so you might as well chose what kind. It doesn’t sound like any one script can fix this problem.

        1. OP 1*

          Agree, which is why I have been relying on hints instead of direct communication. Not sure I want to be on record telling her to ask fewer questions (which is how it would get interpreted, I think.)

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Would it be interpreted that way by people other than her? Because you might just need to tell your boss “this is what I plan to do, this is how I expect her to interpret it, and I want you to know in advance that’s not what’s happening.”

            1. OP 1*

              Good question — I think other people would realize that this is just her, but I’m also relatively new here and don’t want to plant that flicker of doubt when i don’t have a ton of cred built up yet. Talking to my boss beforehand and asking if he’s cool with how I plan on presenting it to her is a good idea; then if she blames me later for not being available to help he’ll know what I really told her.

              1. Jules the 3rd*

                From experience: Go in with a plan, but make it clear you really want his feedback. ie, ‘I want to say X to her; does that seem like a reasonable script?’

          2. Observer*

            Alison is right.

            Also, if you need to, go on record with what you ARE doing for her. And make it clear (at least to your management) that you are NOT asking her to ask fewer questions, but to ask them differently and with more respect for your time and workflow.

          3. Welling*

            I agree with Jellyfish that there is going to be fallout no matter what, so maybe you should go on the record telling her to ask fewer questions. You may want to run that by your boss and/or her boss first, but she’s if she has daily meetings with you and is stopping by several times to ask more questions, she’s being really inefficient in how she asks questions and she’s distracting you from your own work. Both of those are performance issues that need to be dealt with by management.

      2. Quill*

        As someone who often has to refresh on various procedures because I can go months without having done them… do you have any accessable training documents that would address this question? Because there’s nothing wrong with requiring her to check the manual first. Or having her compile her FAQ’s in writing so she can refer back to them when she has repeat questions.

        (Also in a system that has more exceptions than rules – some documents requests systems are like this – it’s possible that, especially if Miss Interruptor is working for multiple people or departments – the only way to keep up to date on how to figure out a question you don’t come up against often enough is to have a written procedure!)

        1. OP 1*

          they’re usually deal specific Qs vs procedure or platform Qs (i.e. “how many sample teapots does Jane want for this project, the order form doesn’t say?” A: ask Jane) and I have definitely communicated to her that she should just go ask Jane — but I think she’s so terrified of asking Jane, etc. “dumb questions” that she comes to me first to make sure that “asking Jane” is the right move.

          1. Quill*

            Oh, hi, anxiety!

            Yeah, the issue here is probably less about having documents, notes, and refreshers and more that you’ve defaulted to being the Only Person Who I Feel Comfortable Asking For Help.

            The only thing I can think of that would help in that instance is for her to have a checklist of things to have before asking Jane a question, and/or encouraging her to email Jane (if the problem is speaking to her) or just walk by Jane (if the problem is emailing her & not getting any nonverbal cues that she’s not annoyed by the question.)

            Maybe a script or a form email?

            I noticed that you didn’t specify the number of sample teapots in your most recent order form (attached). Is 13, the same number as last shipment, okay?

            You’ve already accidentally become this person’s coach, so turning this type of interaction into one that they can have a procedure for (a procedure that does not involve you!) while not your job description, is probably the only way to secure peace.

          2. Jennifer Thneed*

            Why is she so afraid of Jane, etc? Are they at a higher level than you? or mean and sarcastic? Or actually holding her accountable (which might be perceived as “mean”)?

            Anyway, you’ve got her very well-trained to come to you, because you always reward the behavior! I agree with others who say, give her very clear steps for solving her problems before she comes to you. Tell her that she needs to save ALL her questions for your meetings (and maybe have 2 short meetings a day for a week) and then, really, never answer her questions outside of your meetings. Somewhere in there, tell her that you still have your own performance goals and you need to focus on them because all the time you’re spending on her issues could make your own work slip (even if this is a slight white lie) and you’re not willing to risk that.

            And again, never reward the behavior you want to eliminate. You guys aren’t doing brain surgery or putting out fires, right? Everything Can Wait Until The Meeting.

            1. Oh So Anon*

              In these kinds of environments, holding people accountable for behavioural things often is percieved as mean, because it seldom happens. People who don’t receive a lot of direct feedback are very unaccustomed to hearing it.

      3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        OP, I have an idea. When I was in an entry-level job all those years ago, for the first few months, I was assigned a mentor who was training me to work on both the in-house system, and on the clients’ production issues. The mentor was a guy my age, but in a senior position and very intimidating. Anytime I’d come to him with a question or with something I’d gotten stuck with and needed help with, first thing he’d do was ask me “Have you tried X? Have you done Y?” listing all the steps one would normally take to resolve that question or issue. I quickly learned to do all possible research myself before coming to him. I’m sure it cut the number of questions I came to him with by about 90%. Would it be helpful to do that with this employee, or is she beyond the point where she wants to learn to do things herself?

        And yeah, you have all my sympathy for how she tries to make you responsible for her basically existing in this job, and how everything she does wrong is somehow your fault for “not helping her”. You say (if I am reading this right) that she’s been working there longer than you. How did she manage before you started? Did she have a different designated helper?

        1. OP 1*

          Good point on your mentor — the majority of the time the answer to the Q really is “have you asked X? no? then go ask him what he meant”. I think at this point she’s running basically all of her interactions / work by me because she’s aware that her work isn’t great and is terrified of messing something else up, so I am often repeating the same type of answer (vs. her starting to “get” that this is where she could go for the answer).

          She’s been working longer but hasn’t been at this company for very long.

          1. Jules the 3rd*

            That might be the start of a different big picture conversation with the coworker, where you say, ‘If there’s a question about an order, start with the person who placed it. If you can’t reach them, then come knock on my door.’

            Because really, the problem is that she’s asking you questions 5x/day. Irritation at how she asks is mostly your brain trying to distract you because you have limited ability to address the real problem.

          2. Mary*

            >> I think at this point she’s running basically all of her interactions / work by me because she’s aware that her work isn’t great and is terrified of messing something else up

            This has been a really interesting discussion (and thank you for engaging!), because this dynamic sounds significantly different from the one you initially presented.

            I think before you speak to your co-worker, this is definitely something to run by your boss, and potentially her boss, to check that your arse is appropriately covered and that your understanding of how helpful and available you’re supposed to be is. “X is interrupting me multiple times a day, and I think she’s just nervous about acting on her own initiative and so she’s running EVERYTHING by me. Examples include: … What do you think? Should I continue to be available to her for this kind of reassurance, or do you think I need to start being firmer about being unavailable so that I can concentrate on my work?” If you get your boss’s support to start setting firmer boundaries, you can discuss some strategies for that.

            I also suspect it means that she needs more input on this from her manager, and it needs feeding back into the performance management, because this is evidence that a) even with performance management, she still doesn’t have the ability to do the job or b) she’s managing to turn it around, but she isn’t getting any validation or feedback from her manager that let her know that. But again, that’s a discussion to have with your boss.

            1. Mary*

              (Gotta say, actually, your management all together sounds kind of crap here–they aren’t supporting you particularly well by letting you know whether you are supposed to be permanently available to Co-Worker or whether it’s OK to draw boundaries, and they’ve got her in a state of permanent nervousness about whether she can do anything without getting your permission first. I think at least some of your frustration with Co-Worker is coming out of a whole culture of vagueness about where accountability and responsibility lies, and you could definitely do with pushing some of that back up to management.

          3. animaniactoo*

            Ah. So if she isn’t “getting” it, you need to change how you answer it. “What do you think my answer to this is going to be?” and either she gives you the right answer and you say “Correct! Go ahead and do that.” [smile] or you say “Hmmm. No – Okay, what was my answer the last time you asked me a teapot-related question?” And then you keep walking her down that path (whose department is teapot quality control?, etc.), and reward the right answer with a smile and a go do that message.

      4. Senor Montoya*

        If she can’t figure it out, are there things she can do BEFORE she asks you? because obviously you cannot be answering questions for her forever, should she keep her job.

        Sit down with her at a scheduled meeting and go through with her the steps she must take BEFORE she comes to ask you a question. Yes, this is something her own supervisor or trainer ought to be doing, but it’s not happening so tag-you’re-it, and hopefully it will pay off for you (her annoying behavior will stop and/or you will demonstrate to the higher ups that you are a team player and super helpful). Have *her* write it down. Give her a pad of paper and a pen if she doesn’t have them: check the Llama Grooming Manual, google the question, look through the Llama Procedures file/ask Joe in Llama Fluff Products. Whatever. You can be very polite and helpful, but you must also be firm about it. Don’t move to step two until she has written down step 1.

        Frame this as helping her learn the steps she needs to take to be better at her job.

        Then tell her your rules for interruption. I’d state it something like, After you go through these steps, if you still need to ask me a question, send me an email/gchat/come to my office and knock/whatever rule you have. That way, Karen, I can give you my full attention and you’ll get the help you need.

        Send her a nice email after this session, saying something like, Thanks for a good meeting, Karen! Please email me if any of the steps we discussed are unclear. See you at 2 pm on Thursday for our weekly meeting!

        Keep a good record of everything, days, times, topics discussed. Yes, this is a giant PITA time suck. Probably you don’t *need* this, but just in case your bosses go off the deep end and hassle you for being mean to Karen…

        And as I said elsewhere, it matters not a whit that you are younger. You are senior to her, you are a skilled professional, and your job btw is not on the line. Be kind and polite, but clear and firm.

      5. TootsNYC*

        You keep saying the performance stuff is being addressed separately. But this isn’t separate. Especially since her questions show she is not performing well (since, if she doesn’t get an answer, she’ll do her job wrong).

      6. E*

        Could your manager and hers both set up a plan where she is directed to go to her manager before coming to you? Then going forward, you can immediately respond with “what did your manager say?” and if she isn’t using the instructed chain of command, you can send her that way because you’re wrapped up in another project.

        1. Clisby*

          Probably depends on the type of questions being asked. Before I retired, I was a long-term SME at my company. There were approximately eleventy zillion things I knew that my manager had no clue about.

    2. Working with professionals*

      In addition, any time she comes in ask her to bring a notebook to write down your answers. Then when she comes back to ask the same question again you can direct her back to her notes. The third time she asks the same question she already has an answer to you can use one of Alison’s scripts where you call out the behavior. “I have provided you an answer to that question which you put in your notes so that you wouldn’t need to come ask. What is keeping you from checking your notes?” Or better wording. Call out the passive aggressive behavior in a professional manner. Many people will stop the behavior when they realize you clearly see what they are doing. Of course, she may change to a different tactic and you will have to meet that next.

  23. drpuma*

    OP5, work-life balance is a scam, but a trendy one, and you could probably tip your hat to the idea of “balance” to explain without explaining. “The way the work/tasks/time/responsibilities balance out between this job and my other job is working really well for me! Thank you for letting me know, but I’d hate to change a good thing.”

    1. OP5*

      That’s one issue I’ve been running into. Both full time librarians are VERY concerned that I’m working basically 12 hour days. But there’s an hour commute between jobs, and compared to what I do at day job, the evening job is much less stressful. Most nights I’m helping students with computer problems or undoing paper jams. I’ve tried to explain that it’s not as bad as they think it is, but I don’t think it’s coming across that way.

      1. Senor Montoya*

        That’s nice of them to be concerned, but it’s really not their business to make career decisions for you based on what they think is a tough situation.

      2. Well Then*

        Are they concerned you’re going to get burned out working two jobs, and quit the PT gig? You could try explaining it as the part-time job is your stress relief, because you like working with students after a day of being in the weeds researching, or something along those lines. Giving more detail/context about why this balance works really well for you would be reassuring, if they think you are feeling overwhelmed but you’re saying it’s fine out of obligation.

  24. Beatrice*

    For OP1 – in addition to what others above have said….what other resources does this person have to answer their questions? Is there a procedure or reference manual they should be looking at, or training materials they should be refreshing themselves on, or files they should be looking through? Is there another person who can answer many of their questions, who they can check with before they interrupt you?

    I had a situation similar to yours last year, except I was the person’s manager and not the person she was interrupting. I set clear expectations with my direct report that she check in her reference materials before interrupting someone else, and that she write things down when she was told and reference her notes for later questions. The person she was interrupting was our guru on llama teapots, but we had other people who knew things about llamas, or teapots, or knew about llama teapots but not at an guru level. I had to define a clear escalation path for her to go with questions – e.g. if she had a question, she had to go to Adept A, B, or C for help, and only go to Guru when specifically directed there by one of the Adepts. (I also had Adept A, B, and C compare notes and assess whether the things she was asking were things she’d already been trained on, if additional training was needed, or if she just wasn’t getting it.) I also set expectations that she ask for help if she’d tried to find an answer independently for 15-20 minutes, and then she clearly state where she’d already looked and what she’d already tried when she asked a question. (The job was a really bad fit, and we found another role for her that fit her working style better after six months or so. If that other role hadn’t worked out, we would have had to let her go.)

  25. Oh No She Di'int*

    OP 2: Dr. Strange-Email or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Read Receipt

    I personally never request read receipts, and in fact, don’t get them all that often. Nevertheless, they used to bother me for the same reasons they bother everyone else. That is, until I examined why they bothered me. In my case, it was because I felt that as soon as that receipt is sent, a clock starts ticking on a response. Suddenly there is a pressure to drop everything and reply right away.

    Or so I thought. The truth is that that pressure came entirely from me, not in fact from the other person. Never, ever have I received an email that ended with “And I expect a response from you the very moment you read this.” It was always an assumption I made about the other person’s mindset. But it’s just that: an assumption and nothing more. Once I relieved the pressure from myself, it became much easier to simply do what I would otherwise do: that is, simply respond to the email when I get around to it. Nothing has to change.

    So now my attitude is this: if you want the security of knowing I’ve read your email, have at it. You’re welcome to a read receipt. Now you can get on with other things and not send me an email 3 hours from now saying, “Did you see my email?” because yes, you already know I’ve seen it. The fact that I’ve seen the email, however, means nothing, NOTHING regarding what my response schedule should be. I will get to it when I get to it. Just as I would with any other email.

    Now, if you note in the text of the email that it’s an emergency or if it is marked as urgent, then of course I will take that into consideration in the timeliness of my response. I am not an anti-social person. But the mere fact of you knowing that I’ve read the email has no bearing on when I choose to answer it, particularly when a read receipt is requested on all emails as a matter of course. There’s no way each and every one of those issues is urgent. So this no longer presents a problem for me.

    Note that this is my practice. This is what I do. This is in no way a blanket prescription for how everyone should deal with their email. If it works for you, I recommend adopting it. If not, then by all means don’t. YMMV.

  26. AnotherSarah*

    OP1, is it at all possible to start saying “I need you to start asking your manager these questions?” and then looping in her manager that you’re doing this? I get that you review her work and that you need to be collaborative…but this is really ridiculous, and after a certain point, not your problem. It becomes your problem if she says you’re not helpful, but looping in her manager seems to me to be the clear way forward, along with more direct communication if possible.

  27. animaniactoo*

    OP1 – I read through your comments here, and I have a some comments on thought process – how you’re thinking about/looking at all of this from your end – and a couple of suggestions for how to draw and enforce the boundaries you need. Starting with the suggestions – one of these you’ll need to loop your manager in on, the other is a simple “co-workers sorting this out between themselves” kind of thing.

    1) “Hey, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I’m often busy and focused when you come in to ask questions, so I end up missing what you’ve said and then you need to start over and repeat it again. If you can just make sure you have my attention before you start, that would be great. I want to be here and useful to you, but I need you to help me do that from your end of it. Based on how I work, it would be awesome if you could ask if it was a good time to interrupt and then I can either ask you to come back in 5/10 minutes or I’m available right then. ” You may not get it all out in one shot, but it’s the ground you want to cover and the kind of phrasing that you want to use.

    If she comes in and launches in again without at least checking to make sure she has your attention, that’s the point you can stop her and say “Okay, this? This is what I was talking about. We haven’t made any eye contact, you didn’t ask if it was a good moment, there has been absolutely nothing on my end by either word or physical gesture to indicate that you have my attention – and you’re already on the 3rd sentence of your question. I have no idea what the first 2 sentences were, other than that they existed. At least, I think it was 2 based on your pauses.*”

    And the next time she does it, you look at her and stop her and say “I really need you to have this down – please go away for 10 minutes and come back and make sure you get my attention before you start speaking.” You are senior to her even if she is not your direct report, you absolutely have the standing to say this to her – even if she is physically older than you. (I am assuming that even for something truly urgent, it can wait 10 minutes).

    *Depending on her response and body language, you might scrunch your nose up and ask her at that point “Was it 2?” and direct her off her train of thought into whether it was 2 or 3 or no, only 1, but okay whatever it was – push her to think about how many words came out of her mouth before this point, and make clear your own confusion and how much you didn’t process while she was talking.

    2) This is the part that you need to talk to your manager about 1st, maybe hers if they’re not the same person. You’ve said that she has no discernment over what’s an urgent issue and what’s not. But you do. So instead of going ahead and immediately answering the question, let her know that’s a non-urgent question and to please put it on the list for the 2 pm check-in meeting and you’ll talk to her about it then. At that point, if she doesn’t bring it up, make sure that you do and ask if she still needs the answer to it.

    Which does bring me to another point – how’s her note-taking? You’ve said a bunch of this is repetitive stuff that she’s not absorbing. I would be digging in to her notes and pointing out overall patterns of stuff that she’s not making the connections on, and if she doesn’t HAVE notes then that — by far — is the biggest issue. It’s one thing if she doesn’t understand what the manual says. It’s another thing if she’s had the manual translated for her into something she understands and isn’t keeping a record of that for her own reference. At which point, the question becomes “What do your notes say? Let’s start there.” as a way to say “I’m available to help you, but the help might not be just answering your question – it may be helping you figure out how to find the answer without asking me.”


    All of this advice hinges on one overall theme: Right now, there is ZERO motivation for her to change anything she’s doing. It doesn’t matter if she has to repeat a couple of sentences, she’s still getting to walk into your office and launch into the question. Having to repeat herself is not a sufficient burden for her to feel a need to avoid it. She doesn’t have to wait until the 2 pm or whenever meeting for the non-urgent question (and thereby help build the awareness/discernment between what’s urgent and what’s not), because you’re still going to go ahead and answer the question in the moment. And it sounds like she doesn’t have to put significant effort into figuring out how to keep track of the information, because she can just come back and ask you again. She is, essentially, rewarded with what she wants to do by being able to keep doing it.

    You cannot control her and what she does with the information you give her or her impulse to just keep asking you questions. You absolutely can control how you respond to it while continuing to be available for questions. Note that within this, you’re never telling her don’t ask a question. You ARE telling her how and when she’ll get an answer that works within busy norms and your actual availability for her/these kinds of questions.

    And in the end, if SHE still thinks that you are not available to answer questions when you draw these boundaries or that her problems are your fault for not being available to answer questions, note that you don’t have to convince her. It’s not your job to convince her past a reasonable attempt at clarity. You cannot force her to accept that she’s in the wrong, and you don’t actually need her to agree in order for you and others to know and agree that you have done your job. Which is to be clear about what you expect and enforcing those expectations, while still answering questions and being available in a reasonable way. One that would be interpreted as utterly reasonable by normal standards, and that your manager/her manager agree with. That’s the part that’s your job.

    1. animaniactoo*

      Pardon the wall of text, I really should have broken that into 2 comments for better readability.

    2. AnotherSarah*

      Yes, notes! In one of my early jobs out of college, I never went into a meeting with a notebook–and my supervisor would sigh and say, “I’ll wait for you to get your notebook.” I learned quickly.

    3. pamplemousse*

      This is great advice. The only thing I’d say is that the follow-ups in 1 feel a little over-the-top to me. It’s fine to just draw the boundary and then enforce it rather than rubbing her colleague’s nose in what she’s done wrong like a puppy you’re housetraining. If she does it again, say, “Sorry, I didn’t hear/see you there. I’m in the middle of something right now. I’ll come find you when I’m done.” And keep doing it until she gets the message.

      1. animaniactoo*

        The issue is that LW is supposed to be helpful to her – and pointing out this interaction error in clear unequivocal language IS helpful as it is likely that LW is not the only person that she’s making this mistake with.

        LW can’t keep “doing something until she gets the message” because this woman is clearly impervious to any kinds of hints and subtle cues. Therefore, attempting to try to continue to communicate in hints and subtle cues is a waste of effort and there is absolutely NOTHING that will work other than clear and explicit language about what is happening that is wrong. In fact, it is a kindness to stop hinting and just get it out in the open and it would be cruel and unkind to continue to hint rather than do that.

        What’s been described is not rubbing her nose in it, it’s simply being clear about it and then refusing to accept less effort on her part. Rubbing her nose in it would be cocking your head and saying sarcastically “What did you forget????” and other language designed to be humiliating rather than clear about what was not present and what is needed to occur in a calm and civil tone.

        1. Maria Lopez*

          Which is why I said she needs to be told that her behavior is rude (it is) and why. She has not responded to all of the great types of suggestions all of the commenters have written. Subtlety is not her strong suit.

          1. animaniactoo*

            Very few people who are not in a parent child relationship (and not many of them either beyond a certain point) are going to take being told that they’re being rude well. You can be blunt and clear that something is a problem without saying that it’s rude, and that should be the goal rather than using a word that is emotionally charged and more likely to derail what you’re trying to get through than accomplish it.

  28. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    OP1, I haven’t read all the comments but most of them (and Alison’s response) focus on the hinting vs clear communication issue.

    What jumped out at me was this:
    “she’s having a lot of performance issues and has tried to blame me for not “helping her” enough”

    It’s not clear what your responsibilities are to her role, or whether her performance issues are in any way related to your level of support.

    You either need to support her more, in a way that should be clear if your roles are defined properly (in which case, do that, but still set reasonable boundaries), or you don’t.

    As a senior employee, I’m surprised that you are making time for her because you might get “blamed” for something. Is your workplace prone to unclear directives or poorly defined responsibilities, that you would be worried about the repercussions here?

    Where is her actual supervisor or line manager in this situation?

  29. pamplemousse*

    One thing I am seeing from OP throughout this thread is fear of being perceived as rude or condescending. People who don’t give a lot of direct feedback (at work or in their personal lives) don’t have a lot of practice at it, and so can’t imagine how they would say something directly but kindly/warmly. Plus, once it gets to the stage of pure irritation, it’s hard to imagine being direct about one behavior because isn’t the feedback “Just stop being the way that you are!!!”

    One thing that’s helped me is to focus on 1) The behavior you need to change *the most* 2) Why you need it to change. If you smile and treat this like a normal, respectful coworker interaction — which it is! — it cues her to interpret it that way too.

    That could be: “Hey, when you come in and I have my headphones on, can you give me a minute first, and check to make sure I can answer your question right then? I want to help you, but right now I don’t always have time to process what you’re saying, and sometimes I’m in the middle of something and it’s really not a good time to be interrupted.”

    Or it could be: “Can you start holding these kind of questions for our daily meeting? I scheduled that time because I want to have some uninterrupted time to help you while making sure I can get my other work done.” Then, the next time she interrupts, tell her you’ll talk about it at the daily meeting.

    It’s OK to smile and use a kind tone as you say these things! These are totally normal things for coworkers to say to one another, and totally appropriate for you to say.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Very nice advice!

      I also found it useful to focus on what “the job” or “the department” needs from people instead of what “I want.”

      People who don’t give a lot of direct feedback (at work or in their personal lives) don’t have a lot of practice at it, and so can’t imagine how they would say something directly but kindly/warmly. Plus, once it gets to the stage of pure irritation, it’s hard to imagine being direct about one behavior because isn’t the feedback “Just stop being the way that you are!!!”

      I mentioned this on another comment: in these situations, I try to “channel my inner daycare worker.”
      Good daycare workers recognize that the things kids do are age-appropriate or created by their immaturity—it’s not something personal directed at them; yet they also know they need to correct the kid. And it’s not their kid, so they have a little more reserve. And so the ones I interacted with (as a mom) were capable of being very matter-of-fact.

      Also–think of it as “feedback” (as pamplemousse named it–quite properly) and not as “scolding” or “correcting.”

      Sometimes the only paradigms people have for “authority” is parent, teacher, or principal. And those roles are often handled in more scoldy or judgmental ways.

  30. Mr. Tyzik*

    OP1 makes me feel frustrated.

    People are not mindreaders. Hinting is not a direct way to request action. Asking is.

    If I were this person, I would be frustrated to have a boss who is always put out with my appearance for a question when my boss says she is open to questions. I wouldn’t pick up on hints because I don’t read minds. I’d need a direct request.

    We function as a society best when we clearly express our needs. OP1 is doing a disservice to her employee by not being more direct.

    Maybe we aren’t supposed to blame the letter writers, and maybe I’m not being nice, but I feel strongly about beign direct and candid in business. Over 20 years into a career, I have no patience for hints and passive-aggressive behavior.

    1. Mary*

      I think if you read through the responses, there are other things going on–OP1 has had really mixed messages from her own managers about how available she’s supposed to be as a “helpful” person to the employee who is being performance-managed, and is concerned that any attempt to set clearer boundaries will be perceived negatively by them. It doesn’t sound like a great organisational culture all round.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, really.

      Just my opinion, but I think that people have trouble hearing their own voice talking in an instructive tone.
      But for that matter, I have seen people who have difficulty giving a dog commands. Uh, it’s a dog, whose life is dependent on the owner to protect. A dog that does not know his commands can end up being a dead dog.

      Moving up this ladder, we have to instruct our children.
      Going one more rung, we also sometimes end up instructing our older family/friends on how to deal with a difficult or unfamiliar situation.

      Being able to guide people/beings through difficult (to them) situations is a good skill to have. This goes out beyond work applications it also has life applications.

      1. KoiFeeder*

        Okay, the dog one is new to me. They want a dog… But they want it to be able to read their mind…

        That’s what Nintendogs is for.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      At very least, “When your hints aren’t picked up, be direct!”

      I’m fine with trying hints if that’s your style. But you have to acknowledge that when they don’t work, the next step is to say “Sue, I’ll help you as soon as this is done, which should be in about 30 minutes. I’ll IM you when I have the time to discuss this.”

  31. Lilly76*

    Concerning question number one.

    You mentioned that this person does not direct report to you, who is her immediate supervisor and why isn’t she going to them? Also who is she is telling that it is your fault she is not performing well? Are you supposed to be her trainer. I’m slightly confused on the expected role of you to her.

  32. X. Trapnel*

    Ah, the read receipt. In my most recent foray into the corporate world, I worked at a branch office of a national concern. The big boss’s admin used to send out an email at 5 to 5 every afternoon and then collect the names of those who didn’t provide the receipt at that time. These miscreants were then hauled over the coals. What it resulted in (in our office anyway) was folk sitting there in their coats, bags at foot, waiting for the email, clicking the read receipt, then hightailing it out of Dodge. It seemed such a silly, childish, snooping behaviour. I lasted 8 months there and haven’t touched another corporate job for 8 years I wonder why…?

  33. Perpal*

    OP1: it sounds like you are new and the problem employee has been around a long time, that the problem employee helps you with your work but you are not their manager? And that is why you are anxious about seeming unavailable, even if it is pretty reasonable to put some limits on what they are doing?
    I think Allison and others worked it out in the comments but to summarize
    — let your boss and her boss know your plan to tell her to limit/redirect questions to the meeting, and check if it is okat with them (if not, that is a whole different conversation and I do question why this employee is still here and behaving this way without their manager stepping in)
    — At the next daily meeting, review your plan with her; ask her to save non-urgent questions for the daily meting. To get your attention and ask if it is a good time before proceeding. That you will redirect her if the question is more appropriate for the meeting.
    — if this causes her to just decide to do her work wrong rather than bother to review things at the meeting, document that and let your boss/her boss know, request [whatever action is reasonable; perhaps a new assistant? A plan for her to improve x and y by z date or you will get a new assistant? ], etc.

  34. pegster*

    OP1 – are you having the employee write down instructions and responses to your questions? I agree that her inability to gauge when, how often, and how to communicate are problematic, but perhaps there’s some way you could arm her with the information she needs in her own handwriting. Then help her to refer to her own words to find the answers she needs (even if it’s a – “hey remember when you wrote down that I prefer to bring up issues at our meeting instead of multiple times through the day – let’s see where you wrote that – oh, there it is”). I would even resort to a “Are you writing this down? It’s important and it’s a good habit to write things down to be able to refer to later”. It seems like she’s using others as a crutch and needs some tools to wean herself off that, inability to read social cues notwithstanding.

  35. Lilly76*

    OP1~ it feels to me that at some point this employee was told to go to you because “she has all the answers”. What I do being in the same position as you, is redirect them to other equally capable folk for certain types of questions. One person for one thing another for something else etc. You can’t possibly be the only capable employee at this company in every way. Some types of things keep where you are the best person for her to ask and implement the many suggestions given to reduce or consolidate to a particular time of day but share some of the questions with others.

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